FIRE DANCE Delle Jacobs Published at Smashwords by Delle Jacobs Copyright 2010 Delle Jacobs Discover other titles

by Delle Jacobs at http://smashwords.com and http://dellejacobs.com Cover Art by Delle Jacobs Wylde Wynde Designs http://wyldewynde.com Smashwords Edition, License Notes: This books is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebooks may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share ths book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each person you share it with. If you're reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then you should return to Smashwords.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of thus author.

1This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either products of the author's imagination or are used fictionally. Any resemblance to persons living or dead or to events or locales is entirely coincidental. All Rights Reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any number whatsoever without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.

ISBN 978-1-61658-496-2

CHAPTER 1 Cumbria, 1092 A.D.

The odor of death filled the chamber where Fyren lay, its fragrance like the sweetly rotten smell of carrion. Beads of sweat formed on his brow and in the crust of his unshaven beard. His bulky limbs convulsed as he fought to rise, then fell limp. Yet his eyes blazed with a fury so malevolent, Melisande thought she smelled Satan's brimstone. She stood alone in the chamber, for all his allies had fled. Her hands lapped loosely together and her face was as bland as she could make it. Even now, she dared not show her fear. Caught in the stiff April wind, the wooden shutter clattered open against the stone wall, startling Melisande from her concentration and whipping pale strands of her hair into her eyes. She crossed to the open window to study the clamor in the bailey below where her unarmed knights stoically awaited their uncertain fate. The Normans had reached the gate. She had not counted on them coming so soon. They were only moments from entering the upper bailey, and moments more from the hall. And still, Fyren lingered. Quashing her fear and setting her face once more to a mask of stone, Melisande returned to the bedside. "The Norman comes, girl?" The words hissed from Fyren's lips. "Aye." "He will kill you." All her life he had feasted on her fear while she had fought to withhold it from him. She kept her face rigidly controlled. "Aye." "This is how you repay me. I gave you everything. Taught you things no one else knows." She said nothing, made no move. "I am your father. I loved you. Have you no compassion?" "Compassion? Nay." "You hate me so much, girl?" His words began to slur. His eyes, once as bright blue as her own, faded as she watched, yet his rage at her audacity had not dimmed. "You should confess your sins," she replied. "I do not fear God." Fyren fought to eke out the words. "You will not escape me, Melisande." "You are but a man, after all." "You think I die. But I will come for you. You cannot escape." Even now, he threatened her. Yet Fyren’s eyelids sagged and closed. Perhaps it would come now. But what if he did not die? He was Satan's own, and God would not favor her. That she now dispatched Fyren to Hell meant only that he would be there awaiting her own arrival. And all her suffering in this life would be as nothing compared to what he would do to her then. Fear rose in her like gorge. She gulped it back down. A whispered voice came from the doorway. "Lady?" She knew without turning that it belonged to Thomas, by its tone of urgency as much as by its gentle timbre. "I am here, Thomas." "Is he gone, then?" "Soon." "You must hurry, lady," he said, rushing to the window to peer at the commotion below. "The Normans are already within the gate." "Aye, Thomas. Soon." She bit her cheek to control her impatience, knowing his anxiety to be as intense as hers, but first she must see this finished. It was her doing. All of it.

Once again, Fyren’s fading blue eyes popped open. "A last thing, girl. The purple. As a shroud." Her lips drew bowstring-tight, like the foreboding that twanged within her. "Aye. 'Tis fitting." Melisande crossed the chamber to a small, heavily carved chest that had once been a reliquary for the bones of some long-forgotten saint. Now it held only the purple cloak, a sacrilege in itself. She lifted the cloak carefully, not wanting to touch the detested thing, and smoothed it over Fyren's body. A shame, that such a beautiful garment could be such a malicious weapon. Fyren's breath came in shallow pants. His body lay stiff and motionless. His eyes drooped closed, then his breathing ceased. The stillness of death filled the chamber. "Is he gone?" Thomas called impatiently. "The Normans approach the hall. You cannot delay longer." "Come and see." Thomas approached the bed and lifted the limp wrist, testing the pulse. "Aye, he's gone. Come now, hurry." Dashing to the chamber door, he peered down at the hall. The clangs of metal and rough male voices resonated against the stone walls. "It is too late, lady. They are below. Perhaps they will not be so harsh. Who could blame you--" "The Normans could. For all their violence, they are pious men. Never fear, Thomas. There is another way out, if you will delay them a little. You will do as I ask?" "Aye, lady. And I will see to the earl." Melisande turned toward the door, but then pivoted back to face Thomas. "Bury him deep," she said. Thomas's pale grey eyes reflected his concern and gentle fondness of her. "As deeply as shovel can dig. God keep you safe, lady." "And you, Thomas. Keep our people safe." It was as much of a smile as Melisande ever made, that small quirking of her lips at their corners, but she gave him the best she could manage. She had learned early in her life to stifle all signs of emotion, so that she now knew no other way. Her light slippers padded against the wooden floor as she ran to the door between the chambers and into her own room. Rough shouts echoed in the bailey. The demons screamed at her. Flee! The Norman comes! She set her jaw, refusing to let panic rule her. You are evil! You are no better than Fyren! Be still. I have no time for your mischief. Witch! I am no witch. But the Normans would believe it. When the Norman lord learned of the demons that tormented her, taunting her with her own fears, and of all the things she knew that she should not, he would have her burned. Even before she crossed her chamber, she jerked her silk kirtle over her head. Snatching up a simpler garment of homespun earthen grey wool, she flinched at its scratchiness. But she dared

not keep her light linen chemise, for the Normans would know a common girl would not possess such a garment. Wadding her discarded clothing into a ball, she flung it all into the open chest near the window, and almost closed the lid before noticing her mother's ring on her finger. She hesitated, caressing the carved warmth of the gold band. Nay. All must be left behind. She jerked the ring from her finger, threw it into the chest, slammed the lid shut, and turned the key. Footsteps pounded on the bailey's hard earth. In the far corner of her chamber, Melisande pushed aside a painted wooden panel that mimicked the yellow plastered walls, then crawled through the hole and closed the panel. Down steps hewn into bedrock, she descended in darkness toward a cavern that was as familiar to her as her own bed chamber. One, two, three-- both hands skimmed against the roughly chiseled stone as she counted the steps. The earl was dead, --eight, nine-- and the Norman had come. The Red King, William Rufus, would win at last the land he had coveted so long. --Sixteen, seventeen, eighteen--. The Norman lord would take the castle in the king's name, then look about for the bride Rufus had promised him. And with any luck, --twenty-five, twenty-six-- he would not find her. --Twenty-seven. Standing on the gritty cavern floor, Melisande bundled her fears into a tight little knot and shoved them deep inside her, too deep for her to feel. Deliberately she stretched each finger out from the tight balls made by her fists. She squared her shoulders. She wished she had had more time to plan, but the word of the Normans' approach had come only the day before. And only then had she learned of the English king’s intent to wed her to the new lord. She was fortunate her hastily conceived plan had achieved as much as it had, for at his worst, the Norman could not be as terrible a lord as Fyren had been. For herself, she had little hope. Perhaps, given more time she might have also succeeded in her own escape. But she had no place to go, so she must hide under the Norman's very nose. But at least Fyren was dead, and his evil cloak would be buried with him. The destruction of the Devil himself could not please her more. *** No one had stopped them. Not a sword raised, nor lance flung, from the time Alain de Crency and his knights had crossed the dry moat and ridden through the thick oak gate into the grassless bailey. Soldiers and knights stood about, their arms laid at their feet. Never before had he demanded a surrender and got it without a fight. And never had he seen a castle quite like this one. Nowhere in the north, in fact, had he seen a stone castle at all. The nearly complete curtain wall of grey limestone seemed new, yet it surrounded an odd assortment of buildings that looked as if they had been around a very long time. An ancient hall of yellow sandstone seemed to march up the hillside, and had a strange wing added at the back that rose into a second story. Beside the hall stood the partially completed shell of a new tower, no defense at all in its present state. "'Tis odd," said Chrétien, the knight's voice a low, cautious mumble as his brown eyes narrowed. "How so?" "I see but three men upon the curtain wall. All unarmed." "Mmm. What of the hall?" Alain asked him. "Stables?" "Naught. The defenses seem dismantled."

From the moment Alain had brought his army within sight of the massive stone walls, he had watched for trouble. The king had expected a long siege, believing Fyren would furiously protest this ouster at Rufus' command. But nowhere did he see signs that the castle would be defended. No great stretch of archers along the curtain wall's high allure, nor engines against a siege. Surely it could not be so easy. Alain jumped down from his great bay charger and slapped the reins into his squire's hand. He strode across the bailey to the hall's paired doors, his eyes taking in all they could see. "Let me go first," said Chrétien, with the suspicion of a battle-hardened veteran. "Nay." Alain shook his head as reached the steps. The paired doors stood open. Did the earl's daughter hide within to attack him as he entered? But no great army hid in the hall's dim light. Inside, he saw the same ancient Celtic appearance, spacious and stark, as the exterior. Massive beams supported a lead roof. --Unusual, outside a church. "Ah. A monastery. This was a monastery." Chrétien's only response was the questioning arch of his brown brows. Beyond the dais at the hall's far end, a silver-haired Saxon knight descended open wooden stairs and presented himself before them. "I am Thomas," the knight said. "I know what you suspect, lord, that a trap awaits you, but there is none. The Lord Fyren has died just this last hour, and his daughter Lady Melisande bids me cede the castle to you." Alain glanced at Chrétien, whose surprise equaled his own. "Fyren is dead?" "Aye, lord." "Where is the Lady Melisande?" "Gone, lord." "Gone? Where?" He should have thought she might abscond. That could be dangerous. "I know not, lord." "She is aware of the king's command, then?" "Aye." "And why does she dispute his order?" "She says that William is not her king, to so command her. She asks that you be content with the castle. She cannot marry you." No, he would not be content. He needed the bride as much as the demesne. But he was not one to play his hand openly, and he decided not to press that issue for the moment. "Then, take me to where the lord lies." Thomas led them up the narrow wooden staircase to an open wooden balcony facing three chambers, each with its own door. Alain frowned. No man short of the king himself had the luxury of three private chambers. He felt the shudder of a premonition run up his back. Rufus had said Fyren was no ordinary man. Certainly this strange castle spoke to that. Yet that powerful man had so conveniently died, and his daughter had merely opened the gates to them? True, women did not always have the fire in them for a fight. Perhaps Fyren's daughter was as meek as her father had been powerful. Thomas stood by the door to the chamber and waited for Alain to pass through. A carved bed stood in the center, with heavy draperies tied back against the posts. The corpse that lay on the bed, wrapped like a swaddled babe in a purple cloth, had a strangely innocent look to it. Seized

by curiosity, Alain lifted the arm of the corpse and found it slack, rather than stiff. The skin was the ashen color of death. "We had not heard he was ill," he said to Thomas. "What was the cause of death?" "He took his own life, lord." "Suicide? I cannot believe it." "Still, it appears so. Some say he was driven mad by the ghost of the priest he killed." Stepping back, Alain folded his arms. "I know naught of this, Thomas. Tell me the rest." "After the death of his wife, the Lady Edyt, Father Leanian laid a curse on the lord. And for that, Lord Fyren had him murdered in his sleep." "You know this to be true?" "Aye." "Did the priest accuse Fyren of the lady's death?" "Aye. The lady died mysteriously. But that was the way of those who displeased Lord Fyren. There are those who believe him a sorcerer, and easily capable of such." "Sorcerer." Alain tensed, recalling his last meeting with Rufus, a strange scene with much left unexplained. There is unfathomable evil in the man, de Crency. I do not want him to live. Had Rufus meant sorcery, then? And you will take his daughter Melisande to wed, no questions asked. Alain had laughed and asked if the lady had two heads. Mayhap she did. Alain could still picture Rufus watching with fascination as he held a crumpled parchment to the brazier's coals. The king's perpetually stuffy nose wrinkled at the acrid smell as flames jumped forth from the glowing coals to consume it. Then Rufus dropped the parchment and watched the remainder of it dance a graceful pattern, like a flower opening, then shriveling in the devouring flames. Odd though he was, Rufus was usually predictable. He had long coveted Cumbria, and wanted this conquest with uncommon ferocity. But he seemed to want this marriage even more. And he had explained nothing except that he had known the girl's mother when he had been a boy. Sorcerer? Was this what Rufus had sent him to combat? Then why had he not said so? If so, surely there was little harm in Fyren now. Yet he felt his back prickle, as if anticipating a knife between his ribs. "And what of his daughter?" Alain asked. "Did the priest also implicate her?" "Nay, lord." "Yet, she chooses to run, as a guilty one might. She cannot hope to escape." "She is naught like her wicked father, lord." "But she has no heart for a fight." Alain's suspicious eyes caught Thomas in the very breath of denial before he quickly closed his mouth. "The lady wishes peace for her people," said Thomas. "She would not see them slaughtered, as many in the north have been." "Where are her relatives?" "She has only a few very distant ones north in Strathclyde. Her mother was of Durham, but all those are dead now." "Friends?" "None, save those folk about the demesne." "Surely some of Fyren's knights must have brought their families from time to time."

"Nay." "Why? Did he not wish connections for his daughter?" Thomas shook his head, seeming genuinely sad. "I do not think he did. Ofttimes, he would keep the girl where none of us, not even her mother, saw her. So the girl was solitary, as befitted her father's wishes." "Yet the knights honor her with their submission. She must at least have their loyalty. It appears you had no fondness for Fyren. Tell me honestly what you thought of him." Thomas's eyes matched the hard, grim line of his mouth. "I know not, lord, if he was a madman, or the Devil's own tool. It matters little, for few men have been so evil." "Well. I will abide by your judgement. See to his burial forthwith, but remove the purple cloth. It is far too beautiful to be buried in the ground." The Saxon knight's grey eyes suddenly widened, then just as quickly calmed. "It is a cloak, lord, that the Lord Fyren had made for his wife before she died." "And then he murdered her? Well, it is mine, now. And far too good for the likes of him. I suppose I will take this chamber. But I have no wish to share it with a corpse." "If you would take Lady Edyt's chamber for this night only, lord, we may prepare this one for you, and remove all traces of the lord's death." "A reasonable request." The air had a need of cleansing. Thomas bobbed his head properly. With a clipped turn, Alain returned with Chrétien to the bailey. "That's it?" Chrétien asked as they crossed the hard-packed earth of the bailey. "We but ride in and take the place?" "It's happened before." "But not quite like this." "Not quite like this. Something is truly afoot." An anxious energy infused him, the kind that took over his body whenever he sensed a battle brewing. Yet it was not a battle he sensed. He could do no more than warn his men and keep his own eyes open. "Are you sure you want to do this?" asked Chrétien. "I have given Rufus my word." "The bride, I mean. A maid you have not seen, of peculiar parentage. Does it not concern you?" "Of course. But I am committed, and I shall make the most of it. Do you doubt I can bring her around to my side, Chrétien?" "And to your front, as well," Chrétien snapped back, flipping his eyebrows. "Nay, I should not have worried." "Ah, but you are so good at it. And you save me the trouble, as you do enough for both of us." Chrétien's mouth spread into a narrow smile that seemed to crinkle both up and down. A good man, his Chrétien, who would fight like a berserker in battle, yet worry himself to flummery over the future happiness of his dearest friend. Studying the people of the hall more closely, Alain saw that not all were Saxon. Some, no doubt, mixed several races. For this part of the Isles, blondes prevailed, a legacy of both the Saxons and the Danes, unlike the slightly darker Normans whose blood had mixed with Franks and Bretons. Alain chose one whose features and hair seemed more Norman, and spoke to the man in the English tongue. "You, sir, how are you called?"

"Gerard, lord, second son of Chauncy d'Amiens. My father rode with the Conqueror." Alain knew of the man. He had thought him loyal to Rufus. Another oddity, to find him here, but now was not the time to pose that question. "How is it that your lord lies dead, and none seem to mourn him?" The young knight's eyes grew cold, with the same hardness Alain had seen in Thomas. "There are some who would pay him the courtesy, lord, but they have had the good sense to leave. And as he is dead, he is of no use to any who remain." "None? What of his daughter?" A rosy flush colored the man's cheeks. "Speak the truth, Gerard. You will not be punished for it." "The fair Melisande has little cause to mourn her father, lord. I pray you will forgive her." "Mayhap. But I will also find her. Tell me what you know, Gerard." "Only that she is gone. We are all bidden by her to surrender the castle for the sake of all within it and those upon the land without." "She must have gone somewhere. Yet she did not leave through the gate, or she would have been seen. Are there other ways out?" "I am not privy to such, lord." He might not be. Yet, like all the others, Alain suspected he knew more than he said. Something was missing. Resentment. The Saxon knights seemed almost happy that they must now pledge to a different lord. Did they submit because the lady had asked it? Or because they would not follow her? Or might there be a trap still to be sprung? A movement caught his eye. A maid with a lithe figure and remarkably long, butter-yellow braid walked away from the crowd toward the kitchen outbuilding. It seemed a strange time to leave, when most hung about for a glimpse of their new lord. Heeding his impulse, Alain followed her through the gathering. The murmur of the crowd swelled, then grew suddenly silent. No doubt, they wondered what it was he wanted with the girl. He was no debaucher, nor one to use his power unjustly. But if these people had suffered Fyren's evil as was said, they would not believe it. They would have to be shown, and soon. Alain had no desire to try to live with his eyes in the back of his head. "Ho, girl, why do you hurry away?" She stopped, slowly turned, and fixed on him large eyes, bright and blue as a summer's day. His breath caught. The severity of her long yellow braid was mocked by a frill of pale tendrils about her face, giving an odd softness to contradict her grim face. A rush of energy surged through him. He had imagined his bride would look like this. The bride was more likely to be a mousy little thing. The girl squared her shoulders and folded her hands together before her, each hand subtly gripping the other. "I go to prepare the meal, lord. You will wish to eat?" Despite her apparent composure, apprehension flickered in her blue eyes. Suddenly he saw himself as she must see him, a dark and lusting Norman beast who carried the power of life and death in his hands. He knew well enough the reputation of Normans among these northern folk. He almost let her go then. But her intensity, as if she both feared and dared him, piqued his curiosity. "What is your name, girl?" She seemed not to have expected his question. Something sparked in her eyes, and then vanished. "Edyt," she replied hurriedly. "Was that not Fyren's lady's name?" "I am named for her."

"And what do you do here?" "I have the keeping of the house." "The housekeeper? One so young?" "I take my mother's place. I am well taught, lord. I pray you will not wish to replace me." "I have no quarrel with it. But perhaps you know where the Lady Melisande has got herself to." Her lips closed into a tight line. "I know not, lord." She knew. He was sure she did. She was as nervous as a cat crossing a log over a rushing stream. Just as she stepped backward, he reached out and took hold of her arm. Alain sensed a brittleness to the hush about them, and turned to see all those in the upper bailey following his words. The knight Gerard seemed especially interested, like a man watchful for the first stroke of battle. Alain released the gentle hold he had on the girl's arm and smiled. "Know all of you," he said loudly, "that I do not come to do you harm, but in the name of King William II to take tenancy of this holding. Those who are loyal will be treated with trust, and all with fairness. But know you also that the Lady Melisande will be found, no matter where she may hide. And I will marry her. The king has commanded, and so it shall be." Alain gave the girl, Edyt, a last hard glance, and again caught a glint of fear in the stunning blue eyes. She would be about the same age as Melisande. In the isolated confines of a remote castle, it would not be unusual for mistress and servant to develop a friendship. And if Melisande had the loyalty of strong knights, no doubt this girl would also protect her. He was persuaded. Edyt was the key.

CHAPTER 2 He knows! Nay, he does not! Flee! Quickly, before he learns! She quashed the demons' taunts. But the Norman's eyes bored into her, all the way to her trembling heart. He caught that small echo of her fear and bounced it back to her, his dark eyes gleaming like a predator that had spotted its prey. She was no mouse, to helplessly present herself to be torn apart by fierce talons. Melisande hastily restored to her face the expressionless mask that had served her in her war against Fyren. She crushed all hint of emotion, knowing if she did not feel it, the Norman could not see it in her. Yet the very brazenness of her gaze marked her as something other than a servant. Hastily, she looked down, fixing her sight on his scarred and dusty boots. If she'd had another option, she would already have taken it. But she had no relative or friend who would dare shield her, so she did what only she would dare, hid herself in plain view as a common servant. That was not merely dangerous, it was a plan extremely unlikely to succeed. But it was all she had. And the Norman was most likely correct. He would ferret her out and force her to marriage, for he had both the ability and the king's great auspices supporting him. She could do little to stop it.

With a small, submissive bow, she turned slowly and stepped through the rough wooden door frame leading into the kitchen. The blast of air, thick with heat and the sweet aroma of freshly baked bread, stunned her. A small, grey-haired woman in a rough wool kirtle much like her own approached her, but kept her eyes lowered as she spoke softly. "You should not test the Norman's ire this way, lady. They are dangerous men." He was even more dangerous to her. She had been close enough to watch the keen black eyes turn to seething charcoal, had felt the heat and power of the man as if it rippled through the chilly air and ensnared her. Black. His hair was black beneath the metal coif, dark as the everlasting night of the caverns below the castle. "I do not test him, Nelda. I merely mean to hide." "Then you should leave. It is not safe." "Let each do his part, and all will be well." At least she had not lied to him about her duties. Even long before her mother's death, she had taken over the management of the household. Now she only presented herself as one who served, instead of a family member. Such a servant was not uncommon, although as the new lord pointed out, that position would usually go to an older woman. She might have given herself a lower position, even in the scullery, but it would have wreaked havoc among the servants. It was best to keep things simple. Melisande raised the hem of her skirt to mop at the perspiration that collected on her brow. She shoved a flat-bladed wooden peel into an oven and extracted a baking loaf, and nodded silently to denote her satisfaction. The cook's helper removed more loaves from the other ovens. "How shall we call you, lady?" Nelda whispered as she wrapped a cloth around her hands to lift a steaming oval loaf from its peel. "Edyt," Melisande murmured back. "It will at least be easy to remember." "Aye, easy enough. But he knows your mother's name. Will he not suspect?" "I told him I am named for her." As if she could change it now. But she wished she had thought faster and given him a different name. "But I fear some shall slip." "'Tis best that none speak it unless they must." No one would betray her purposefully. Even those who had been strong partisans of her father would find no benefit in giving her identity away. It would be a slip that would eventually give the Norman what he sought. But Fyren had been right. Then she would not outlive her wedding night. Melisande returned to the kitchen and checked the spits, hung with great haunches of boar and oxen. Copious drippings sizzled as they splattered onto the fires below, a certain sign that they were properly done. The sigh she released was almost indiscernible. If things had only been different. Once she had prayed for a husband to come forward for her, to take her from her nightmare. But the Norman came too late. And the most futile of wishes was that of changing what had already come to pass. She buried her anxiety in her tasks and returned to the back-straining chores that would bring food to the table of a household suddenly tripled in size. Wiping her brow again of the dripping sweat, Melisande glanced toward the kitchen door. The Norman lord stood at the threshold, his black eyes watching her.

*** So, he made her nervous. He liked that. The vision of those wondrous eyes clung to him as he and Chrétien turned away from the kitchens and followed in Thomas's steps. But Alain de Crency was not a man to be daunted, either by a reluctant bride or an enigma of a girl with startling blue eyes and the most solemn face he had ever seen. He had much to do, and little enough time to accomplish it. They walked through the upper bailey and up the stone steps to the narrow allure atop the new curtain wall. Alain ran a practiced eye over the fortifications, catching here a weakness of mortar, there a cleverness of structure that enhanced its basic strength. "Who designed this?" he asked Thomas while his gaze skimmed over the wall and back to the kitchen outbuilding. "It was Lord Fyren's doing, lord. This was a monastery, but most of its buildings were derelict." "And he added the chambered wing to the hall?" "Nay. But it was one long chamber until Lord Fyren divided it. The outer balcony and doors to it came later." "You disapprove." "It is not for me to say." "Say, anyway." "A lord should not seclude himself from his people." "I see." Alain rather liked the concept, but decided not to mention that. "And the new tower?" "Lord Fyren's doing also. He made it round, for corners are hard to defend." Looking down, Alain surveyed the beginnings of the grey limestone tower that would soon dwarf the older hall. Like the Conqueror's London Tower, it seemed intended for living quarters as well as a refuge during siege. The design made sense. When finished, its only opening would be far above ground on the first story, with wooden stairs that could be removed. For the present, a rough, doorless entry remained at ground level for masons and hod carriers to pass. But the site puzzled him, for it was not the best. Why compromise on such a thing? His eyes traced the line of the almost completed curtain wall that surrounded the hall and its outbuildings, dipping downhill to enclose both upper and lower bailey. "'Tis odd," said Chrétien. "I would have completed the wall before beginning the tower." Alain thought the same. "The wooden palisade was only recently replaced with the wall," Thomas replied. "Lord Fyren sought to build both at once. I think he had not expected a siege." Chrétien tested the newness of the mortar with a fingernail. Alain nodded his tacit understanding. He saw no moss, no discoloration of the stone. Why build if one did not expect a siege? Rufus was probably right. An insurgence had been brewing. An anxious page hurried up to Thomas's side and waited with great patience to be noticed until he was permitted to announce the nearness of the supper hour. Alain took the opportunity to dismiss Thomas to his other tasks, noting Thomas's unexpressed relief. They watched the man scurry after the page, down the steps into the bailey. "They appear amiable," Chrétien mused. "But they are closed to us." "They do not know what to expect of us. Thomas stands as a ready sacrifice to my anger. I wonder why." "It speaks of courage."

"And loyalty. To someone, at least, though not the dead lord. Mayhap to the missing lady." "Do you believe it? The suicide?" "Naught in the man's character allows it." Chrétien folded his arms and leaned against the crenellated outer wall. "His castle wall is unfinished and vulnerable. Mayhap he was caught too far off his guard, and faced certain failure. Or his knights would not back him against Rufus. None seem to have any love for him." "Few have any love for Rufus. But they follow him." "Mayhap he really did go mad after killing the priest. Those things also happen." "Only a man with a conscience goes mad from guilt." "Murder, then?" "More likely. As you said, something is afoot, and it behooves us to learn what, if we are to keep our skins." "Do you think, then, this missing bride poses a threat to you? She might already be on her way to Scotland. Malcolm would not hesitate to add both Northumbria and Cumbria to Scotland, so he would easily welcome her aid against Rufus." "Aye, and more so if she has the skill and loyal knights behind her to assemble a rebellion. Yet she puts herself to disadvantage by ceding the castle and giving me time to secure my position." "Thomas said she wants peace. Might she be as he claims?" "Then would it not benefit her more to ally herself with the English king through her husband? But without the bride, Chrétien, this castle and its demesne cannot be secure." "Those loyal to Fyren might well use her as their rallying point." Alain shook his head. "Men do not rally to a dead man. Fyren is quite dead. And I am impatient to get on with things." Alain wasted no more time surveying his domain. As the supper chime clanged, he hurried down the steps, deciding to set himself immediately to the business of the hall. He would bring in both Thomas and Gerard to assist in establishing his authority, for both of them knew the knights who would now fall vassal to him. It would be a tricky task to unite them all, and he had his suspicions of all the Saxon contingent. But they had little to gain by opposing him now that the old lord was dead. *** Alain already loved this spot atop the curtain wall with its expansive view of his new demesne, best viewed as now, in the setting sun. "What news?" he asked of Chrétien as his friend took the stone steps two at a time and joined him on the allure. "Naught, Alain. She cannot have gone far, yet none admit seeing her." "And you searched all roads?" "Aye, such as they are." "Villages? Cottages?" "All that are about. But I do not think the knights of this holding will betray her, and we know not how to spot her even if we see her." Alain accepted the news with silence. His knights had been about the task since dawn, and like the others, Chrétien also brought back only weariness. They leaned against grey blocks of limestone and surveyed what was before them, all blushed red by the brilliant sunset. Beyond the curtain wall and dry moat spread the village that

had grown up around Fyren's castle, hugging the slope of the craggy hill, and stretching out to touch the green dale below. "I see why Rufus wanted this fortress," said Chrétien. "Aye. It commands the passage to England, a fine buffer against the Scots and Strathclydes." "And access to Northumbria. The folk say many of their fathers fled here from the Conqueror's raids." "That land is still so bleak and scarred." " Perhaps it will never recover, Chrétien." "The Normans may never be forgiven for that." "Perhaps not. But I will hold my demesne anyway." Below, an eerily silent procession wound down the hill from the castle, following an ancient wooden cart drawn by oxen and bearing a coffin. No wails. No death knell. Even Alain’s own priest, Father Hardouin, had refused to give last rites. Alain could not recall any other burial not blessed by the Church. Alain remembered how the coffin had rested all day in the center of the hall, nailed shut with more iron nails than he had ever seen put to a casket. Those few who entered the hall had eyed it warily, but none had approached it, nor shed a tear. Yet, if none had a care for the lord, why did they now follow his coffin to the grave? With a quick gesture for Chrétien to follow, he rushed down through the bailey and out beyond the gate. "Why?" asked Chrétien, hurrying along at his side. "Would not a daughter come to see her father buried?" "But they say she hated him." "Perhaps all the more reason to see it done." Soon they caught up with the procession, remaining at the rear of the small group. A knight without his armor, the Norseman Thorkel, watched them with narrowed eyes. The procession traveled along the narrow dirt lane beyond the church and its small yard, past the village green, the smithy, the tannery, and a collection of stone cottages, to the crossroads. "They fear he will haunt them," Chrétien commented. "Aye. They bury him at the crossroads to confuse his spirit, but it will take far more than that to confuse that old demon. More likely he has already been welcomed into Satan's Hell." Beyond lay pasture land of the lord's demesne, where the grave was dug. No priest stood beside the grave, nor did any other intone either eulogy or dirge. Alain searched the faces. In unison with the five other knights, Thomas lowered the casket into the earth. His mouth was drawn tight, jaw set hard and rigid. Several women stood near the grave, Edyt among them, all studying the coffin with grim concentration as it was lowered into the grave. When the ropes were pulled loose, the girl bent forward and scooped up a handful of the loose earth. She held her hand over the grave, then opened it quickly to drop the dirt. She turned and walked away. Others did the same. Each tossed one handful of earth to the grave, then departed. Man or woman. Vassal or villein. Mayhap it was a custom with these people. "Well?" asked Chrétien. "Well, he is buried. I do not know what else can be said." "But the lady?" "She could have been here, I suppose, but I saw only common folk among the women." "She could be dressed as one of them. Yet I think she would not risk coming at all if she fears being caught."

"Mayhap." Alain still stood beside the grave, watching as villeins spaded in the loose dirt. "Mayhap," he repeated. "Do not forget the faces you have seen here tonight. I counted twentyseven women, most of them of the hall, and some about the right age. But I saw none who looked excessively fearful or secretive. Certainly none shed tears. And none gave the appearance of a lady." "Then she must be already gone." "Aye. But if she is still here, we will see her again. Watch the women of the hall and village who were among the crowd tonight." Chrétien's face screwed into a puzzled frown. "Yet surely your lady would not be toiling with her hands. Surely that would distinguish her." "Or mayhap she is slyer than we think."

CHAPTER 3 The Normans rode out from the castle, their helms shining like mirrors in the early morning sun. Twenty knights in their hauberks, erect and proud astride their big war horses, rode with Alain in pairs across the wooden bridge into the village. With Chrétien d'Evreaux at his side, Alain rode at their lead. The handsome purple cloak he had taken from Fyren's corpse caught the wind, billowing behind him like a Viking sail. Thomas, his silver hair glinting like the discs on his Saxon hauberk, directed the Norman knights along the track of the stream that gurgled downhill. Dark peaks, first gently rounded, then suddenly steepening into stark crags, framed the grassy dale. "Down to where the beck joins the river, then back up into the fells," said Thomas. His hand waved in a wide arc to indicate the vast green space before them, outlined by the curve of the river. Without comment, Alain added the strange new terms to his knowledge of this strange land. Beck meant stream. Fells were mountains. It was almost like learning a new language. He raised his hand and drew his mount to a halt, letting his gaze sweep across the majestic valley and up to the knobby tops of the fells. He could not get enough of their rugged beauty. This land that rolled out before them was the richest land of his domain, now sown in oats, barley and rye, and bright with the new green of spring. Beyond on the fallow lands, black-faced sheep grazed. Farther up on the fells, the animals blended with the ragged grey rocks and cliffs, and sometimes were distinguishable only by their movement. His land. His demesne. He had waited long for this. Thomas pulled ahead, turning the armed knights to the west, then back again to the north, following upstream the track of another beck from where it intersected with the river. The trail grew more rugged, and narrowed as it passed between tall pines and ash trees and rambled near steep cliffs, forcing the knights to follow in a single line behind the steward. "An extensive forest," Alain said, when he could draw up beside Thomas. The steward nodded. "The hunting is good?" "Aye, lord. And adequate timber. None of the forest is being cleared, for the demesne is not in need of more pasture land. And little of it is suitable for the plow. We go there, now." "I do not want to be afield too long," he reminded the man.

"Nay, lord. We shall return before sext. There is much to see, but the rest must wait, for the holding is large." "Very well. We shall take it a piece at a time." Thomas nodded pleasantly, not at all the way a man would who intrigued against his lord. Alain had seen enough conspiracy at court to know even the slyest of schemers gave away their intentions in their demeanor, if watched long enough. He had learned, when turning away at the end of an encounter, to suddenly turn back again as if something had been forgotten. One could see the oddest changes in a man's face, then. In Thomas, he saw none of those things. Neither keenly narrowed eyes nor trained emptiness. Yet he knew the man held secrets. Of all those in the castle, Thomas would be most likely to know the fate of the missing Melisande. And he, of all those there, would know how Fyren died, and whether plots still lingered in the hall's mysterious, aloof atmosphere. Slowed by the steepness of the slope and rocks dislodged by the hooves of the forward animals, the knights rode on. The horses, whuffing their great gasps of air, climbed, following in single file around the slope, now up, now down, sometimes nearly level. The sparsely scattered trees became a thick mat of deepest green spread before them. Alain's charger seemed to sense its master's excitement at the magnificent land and renewed its labors. Alain pulled ahead of the knights to reach the narrow pass between the steep fells and gaze down at the sea of dark green, flowing like waves over the hills. Chrétien spurred his horse and rode up to Alain's side in the narrow gap at the pass. A whine, a thunk. Chrétien howled with pain. Chrétien clutched at an arrow's shaft protruding from his neck. His horse reared. Alain goaded his horse against Chrétien's big grey, lunged and steadied him. He snatched the grey's reins, pulled the beast up short. "Steady, Chrétien. I have it." Alain grasped the shaft, groped for the point. Not deep, stopped by Chrétien's sturdy mail. He jerked the arrow free. "On the ridge! There!" shouted the Norseman, Thorkel. Above them. High up, on the lobbed off peak where Thorkel pointed. "Thomas, see to this." Alain yelled, motioning to Chrétien's wound. "There's no trail up there!" shouted Hugh, springing down from his saddle. "The climb's too steep for the horses." "Take three men, Thorkel. Hugh, you go. See if you can catch him." The same flurry of brown skirted the knob of rock at the fell's peak, then again vanished. Hugh dashed up the slope after Thorkel. "Go, Alain," said Chrétien. Alain glanced at his friend. The bleeding was light. Thomas crammed a cloth between wound and hauberk, his silvery eyebrows furrowing as he bent to the task. Alain flung himself down from his saddle and climbed, clawing at rock and bracken until he reached the ridge just below the rounded knob. The four men stood on the ridge, breathing hard, staring at the wild tangle of rock, soil, bracken and pine that covered the far side of the fell. Swords drawn, ready. At nothing. "Naught?" "Nay, lord," said Hugh. "Not even a grouse disturbed." Alain trained his eyes on the knob where he had seen that flash of brown, climbed to it, and knelt to the ground from where he guessed the shot had come. White streaks on the dark stone suggested the scrape of metal. The thin soil showed the imprint of a knee among a tangle of

shallow, pointed footprints. Downslope past the knob, two widely spaced prints showed the direction the man had fled. Nothing stirred beyond. The stony ground revealed no more prints. "One man only, I think," he said, more to himself than to his men. "Reason enough to flee after only one shot. And he could not have hoped to create much harm from such a distance." "He aimed for your face," said Hugh. "Chrétien merely rode between and caught the shaft in his neck." "An archer of some talent, then." "And one who would see the new lord dead. You must be wary of these folk." "Mayhap." Certain the archer was gone, Alain gave a sharp sideways jerk of his head for a command and worked his way back down the slope to the pass. "Chrétien?" he asked as he reached his friend again. "Well enough." "Only one link of the mail was severed, lord." Thomas daubed at the gash beneath the mail coif. "It should heal without trouble." "And you, Thomas?" "I, lord?" "What think you of this ambush? Mayhap you can tell us who conspires against us." "Aye, I can. There are those who have not pledged themselves. Those who fear losing their fiefs to Norman knights." "And well they might. But you, Thomas?" "By the Lady Melisande's wish, I have given mine, as you know." "And as you have led us into an ambush, shall I still give you my trust?" The man's wide mouth drew tight and thin, and his face set hard. "It is for you to say, lord." Their eyes locked gaze in fierce combat. Thomas stood his ground. "How would this man have known our direction?" "I know not, lord, but it would not have been hard to guess." "How so?" "The new lord would want to see his holding immediately. And it is well known the Normans are fond of their forests." "True enough," said Chrétien. "That is how you would have planned it." It was. And Thomas did not quail from his lord's hard gaze. "I shall reserve my judgment for another time. Chrétien, do you ride?" "Aye, Alain. It is but a minor hurt." "Then, Thomas, do we return the way we came, or have we more surprises ahead of us?" "As you wish, lord. The way before us returns us sooner. But if you fear ambush, more chances lie in the wood ahead." "Ahead, then." Alain signaled for his knights to mount. He regretted that his awed gaze of his new land had distracted him from his usual caution. But he would not make the same mistake again. Thomas led the twenty iron-mailed knights down the steep slope, through the shaded canopy of evergreens and ash. More alert now and less enthralled by the land's beauty, the Normans scanned the underbrush for movement or odd color. They chuckled when despite their caution a hart leapt up within feet of the lead riders, startling the horses. They rode on, reaching lower slopes where the ash trees now showed their first color of the year, and continued farther down to the treeless moors of bracken and heather.

In the valley, they slowed and followed another rushing beck. Alain reined in his bay to watch in astonishment as the stream tumbled into a jagged hole of grey stone and vanished beneath the rock. "What manner of stream is this?" Alain asked, for he had never seen a stream disappear. "It is a common thing here, lord," Thomas replied. "This is a land of many caverns, and sometimes the becks fall into them." "Then what happens to them?" "There are becks coming out of caves, too. Mayhap they are the same." "You do not know?" "The caves are enchanted. One dares not go in, save for the proper reason." "And what would be the proper reason?" The blocky, silver-haired man shrugged his shoulders. "It would be what the hob wants. It is said of one in the Deep Dale, the hob will cure the ills of those who enter, but those who have no ills will never come out again. Some others, no one knows what the hob desires, as none have ever come back out." Alain frowned. Hobs. Another strange word. "Then some also go in, yet come out alive, is it not so?" "Aye, it is so. But I do not want to be the man who does not. I'd see my enemy, face to face." "I cannot quarrel with that." Alain signaled to the man to continue onward, and the big horses resumed their trot. Farther down the dale, the harsh fells gentled into the broad, green valley that was more familiar. Scattered cottages marked small homesteads, a pattern that seemed to be more common to the area than villages. They would be harder to defend. Yet, they also might present more of a problem for a scavenging army. Ahead lay the castle on its craggy grey knoll, its limestone curtain wall seeming to blend and grow from the native stone. The hall's yellow sandstone walls gleamed like sunshine itself in the bright daylight. Beside the hall rose the jagged top of the new tower's construction, already almost as tall as the old hall. Riding up, Alain could see the castle's weaknesses. It was wrongly sited. The curtain wall along its back could never be built high enough to protect it from the higher slopes beyond, and he would have to reinforce that side with high towers and clear the ground for a ways uphill. Why would Fyren make such a mistake? Just to make use of existing buildings? Had he meant to increase the castle's size later on, extending it even farther up the hill? But why not start with the most impregnable site? Alain glanced sidelong at his injured friend as they rode. He could see the pallor collecting on Chrétien's face, although the man would never admit to weakness. Alain spurred his tired charger to a gallop for the journey's last leg. The cross-braced wooden gate was already creaking open, for their raised pennon had been spotted, and Alain urged his stallion across the wooden bridge. His feet lit on the bailey's hardpacked ground even before the squires rushed up to help their knights. "Come now, Chrétien, into the hall, and let's have a good look at it." "'Tis no more than a scratch. My squire can tend it." "I agree, it is probably naught to speak of. But I will see for myself. Inside." Alain slapped the charger's reins into his squire's hand and clamped his hand onto his knight's unimpaired shoulder to signal the seriousness of his intent.

Two women waited beside the hall. Edyt's bright blue eyes met his, large and wide in horror, contradicting an otherwise passive face. Fear? Danger? Astonishment? Nay, he had not brought her a mass of mutilated men to stain her hall with their blood. Merely one with but a passably small wound, who would balk at the simplest treatment. The girl regained her composure as if it had never been lost and stepped aside as the knights passed through the door into the hall. "Nelda, bring the salve. Fresh water, and some rags." The older woman shuffled away. Alain jerked off the purple cloak, tossed it aside, and pulled off his coif and hauberk. Two squires helped Chrétien remove his mail, working it carefully past his wound while Edyt set a torch of rushes into the bracket on the stone wall near the trestle table. She ignored Chrétien's grumbling and with a simple wave of her hand commanded the knight to sit on the bench placed beside it. "Ah, he is right, lord," she said as she daubed a wet cloth to the injury. "It is of small merit, as far as wounds go, but a knuckle's width closer to the throat would have been fatal." Alain nodded. "Aye, I see. It could have severed the great vein at the throat. We were fortunate." He stepped back and watched as Edyt applied a salve with gentle strokes. The frown on Chrétien's face eased. Mayhap, the salve; mayhap the touch. Alain found himself with a fleeting wish for a wound of his own, that she might tend it. He repressed a laugh. "You must rest a few days so that it may heal properly." Chrétien winced. "Rest? There is no time for that." Alain smiled. Nobody told Chrétien he must rest because of a simple hole in his neck. "The coif will only keep it open. It could fester." "Then I will protect it with something." The girl sighed. He suspected she was familiar with the stubbornness of men about such things. "Well, I shall stitch it, then. Nay, do not object. You are of more use to your lord for healing rapidly, and the stitches will take the strain off the wound." Chrétien looked to Alain for defense. Alain folded his arms and watched the girl take four deft stitches with needle and horsehair, then once again coat the wound with her salve. Chrétien grumbled his thanks before stalking away. Alain picked up the small brown crock and sniffed its contents. "What is this?" "It is but the juice of house leeks, with horsetail and mint. I use it commonly for all manner of wounds." "And it works?" "Many times. Your knight is in little danger." "It was fortunate. Hugh thought the arrow intended for my face, but Chrétien happened to ride up at that moment." "Indeed? Your knight does not stand taller than you." He tried to picture what she meant. Had she known the archer shot from above them? He eyed her, suspiciously probing. But there was a simpler answer. "Nay, but his horse stands taller than mine." "The archer must have very good eyes, and aim, then." "How so?" "To distinguish one Norman from another at such a distance. They look much alike to us. In their hauberks."

She spoke as if she and the archer would both look upon the Normans in the same light. Was this passive girl a conspirator? She hardly looked like one. Mischief suddenly seized him. "Do we?" he asked. The girl tensed and stepped back a pace. Like hot blood, the instinct of the predator rose in him, the rush of excitement of the hunt. "Do we all look so much alike, Edyt?" "It is the hauberks, lord. And the coifs. There is no difference, one to another, save for size. -When naught can be seen but eyes." "Is it so? And without the hauberks, Edyt? Is there a difference then?" "Aye--." The girl again cast a glance over her shoulder. "I have things I must attend to, lord. You must excuse me--." "Excuse you? I think not. I have something else in mind." The bright blue eyes flung a trapped look at him, and shifted hastily from side to side. Alain smiled, knowing his smile possessed a lethal look. "Tell me more of our missing lady, Edyt." Again the girl stumbled back, bumping against the trestle table. "Do you know her well?" "As well as any might, I suppose." "Do you know why she absconded?" "It was as was said." "Then why? She cannot mislike me, knowing naught of me." "Um, there are some who do not wish to marry." "And is the Lady Melisande such a one?" "I could not speak for her, lord." "Guess, then." The blue eyes flitted from side to side. "I know only that she said this betrothal is not legal." He laughed. "Rufus is king. Whatever Rufus does is legal." "She does not wish to marry a Norman." Alain eased away, gave the girl more room. His eyebrows raised deliberately. "Surely she must know the king will not permit her to remain unmarried. I have no say in this, nor does she. In any case, were it not I, Rufus would find another." "Aye." She said it in a pale, reluctant sigh. It had meaning for her, then. "Tell me about this elusive lady." "I do not know what to say." "What does she look like?" "Much as anyone, I suppose," she said with a shrug. "An odd reply, Edyt. Can you not be more specific? Her coloring, mayhap? Her hair?" He could almost feel the tension rising in her. Wicked amusement bubbled in his veins. "A sort of blonde, I think." "You think? You do not know? Surely, if you know the lady, you know the color of her hair." "It is blonde, then." Alain stroked at his chin. "Indeed? Some say not, that her hair is dark." "Well, it is sort of dark." "Dark then, not blonde?"

"M-mayhap more blonde than dark, I think." "Some say, red." "Red? --Well, mayhap--" And were Edyt's eyes brown instead of blue, he might have mistaken the girl for a frightened doe, caught in the hunter's eye. Yet even that was no more than a flash before the mask of the obedient and passive servant slipped again into place. Guilt seeped into him, but he was having too much fun to stop. "I am confused, Edyt. Can it be that half the people of the castle are blind and the other half cannot see?" She gulped. "Um, mayhap it is a matter of perception. Mayhap some see her differently." "It occurs to me, nearly everyone here is blonde." "Aye, it is a common thing, here." "So then, you have told me naught. Her eyes, then?" "Blue," she replied, with a finality her voice had lacked before. "Ah, of course, as again, I see little else, here." "Well, I cannot change that." "How tall might she be, then?" "About the usual for a woman. Mayhap, my height." "Indeed? Do you see yourself as of a usual height for a woman? You appear to be taller than the usual." "I had given no thought to my height, or the lady's, lord." "Ah. Then could you say, is she slight of build? Heavy?" "I do not think either." He stroked again at his chin. "Then we shall say, she is not unusual in any way, looks more or less like every other woman. She does look like a woman, does she not, Edyt?" "A-aye." "Well, I will grant there is a common look among the people here. Mayhap they are not distinguishable, either. Mayhap, like Normans, they all look alike." Although she moved no part of her body, a twitch squirmed in her eyes. Yet she quickly brought even that under control. He was beginning to learn how to read her. The first and instant reaction was the true one, the rest a mask. "Look you, Edyt. Though you and all the folk of my demesne may shield her, she will be found. It cannot be avoided." Only a tiny sigh escaped her lips. "But your loyalty is commendable. I will hope for the day when I can command such loyalty here." He could not help the small smile that sneaked onto his face. Perhaps it was pity, that he teased her so mercilessly and she took him so seriously. He touched fingertips to her cheek and found skin softer than he would have thought. An unexpected, heady rush of passion jolted through him, urging him to pull the girl closer to him, to feel her pressed against his body, taste the first fruit of her lips. But he was not a man controlled by his desires, to take young girls without discrimination. He would not allow it of his knights, nor of himself. He had come to this wild land to conquer, and in conquering, take his bride. He would not permit distractions, nor bring another to grief for his own pleasures. He'd seen far too much of that. So it was he who backed away, rather than the girl.

She lowered her eyes and turned away. Yet he was not ready to let her go. "Edyt." The girl stiffened. "Aye, lord?" "Where is the bolt hole?" "Bolt hole?" "One who has the keeping of the household would know. And Fyren was too sly not to have a way to escape. Where is it?" "I--I know not, lord." "You know. And mayhap you helped our elusive lady through it? I will find it myself if I must. But it will be easier if you show me, will it not? It is my right to know, Edyt." In her eyes, he saw a small defeat. He disliked what he saw. There was something proud and wild about her that he did not want to see tamed. "Aye. It is within the new tower." "Show me." She gave a small nod of assent, lifted the torch from its bracket, and walked away. Behind her, Alain mused to himself at the smoothness of her steps and the long yellow braid that swayed at its tip, the way a cat's tail might flick from side to side. She passed through the open door into the upper bailey, never looking behind her as she led him up the slope to the new stone tower. At the doorless entry, she paused. He motioned for her to continue. Edyt stepped through the small opening, ducking her head and lifting her hem. Inside, she skirted past uncleared rubble, beneath the ribbed vaults, leading the way with the torch. The rushlight's dancing shadows played against the rhythmic undulation of her hips. Suddenly realizing the direction his thoughts had taken once again, Alain frowned and shook his head. He needed a distraction. He set his attention to the perfectly done columns and blocks of the undercroft, and the symmetrical arcs of its vaults that supported a huge new hall above. Despite its incomplete state, the lower floor was already full of necessities for a siege. And mice. A huge reddish tabby dashed out from the shadows, chasing the startled prey. "Rufus! Scat! Begone!" The cat scrambled after the mouse and disappeared into the darkness. "Rufus? You have a cat named Rufus?" "King Rufus. He is the lady's cat, lord. And he is very red." "The lady has a cat named King Rufus. That certainly augurs well for the relationship. I shall pray that the king never visits." "He surely would not take offense. The cat was named years ago. Certainly with no thought to a man whose chance to become king was so remote." "He would not? As I recall, he has a vivid dislike for the beasts." "Surely not." "Surely so. They make him sneeze." The girl turned, frowned as if impatient, and moved on. He smothered the smirk that wanted to wiggle onto his face. She had no inkling that he teased her. She led him farther into the darkness, the torch's bright flame trailing backward. She stopped and pointed at a crude wall of coursed rubble. "Behind the barrels," she said.

Alain grabbed the casks by their rims and rolled them away. Two thick wooden planks stood against the wall, and Alain raised each one with little effort. To this point, the bolt hole had both the remoteness and ease of access it should have. Also the greatest danger. "Easy access for an enemy, right into the tower of refuge. Did Fyren not consider this?" "It leads to a cavern," she replied. "No one goes into the caverns." "Hobs?" he guessed. She looked at him as if she could not understand why he even asked. "Mayhap Normans do not fear them as the local folk do." "Then they would quickly learn their error." The coolness of the air within the hole ahead seemed to pull them inward, and the darkness laced about them like a cloying garment. Like Thomas, he had no fondness for dark places. He looked back over his shoulder at the young woman and her torch, then reached out his hand. Her upper lip thinned minutely as she gave over their only source of light. But it illuminated nothing but more darkness. "This is the cavern?" he asked. "Aye. Here, it is narrow, but it widens out. It comes out near the river. Have a care going in." Alain wished she had said that sooner, as he barked his shin and stumbled at the unexpected first step. "Mayhap I should go first, lord." "Nay." He held the torch lower, so that he might see where his feet should go. Only a little way in, the cavern leveled, and he stopped, holding the rush light high. Grotesque columns, parodies of those more perfect ones of the stone tower, rose to a ceiling high above, beyond the torch's dim light. Cascades of stone curtains dribbled down toward the cavern's rough floor. A fine, gritty sand crunched against the stone at his feet when he walked. "This is the way she left, then?" It occurred to him the prospect of encountering a hob did not seem to bother her. "I would think so." Alain didn't. He looked back at the footprints he had made, and hers behind her, but saw no others leading down. He held the torch high up to the slanting walls to examine them. One might be able to climb them and get out without leaving tracks, he supposed, but why bother? Mayhap the lady had dragged something behind her to obscure her footprints? Yet the sand showed no sign of such disturbance. Satisfied, and yet not, Alain handed back the rush torch. They returned to the small entry, where he lowered his head to pass. He again took the torch and held it while Edyt stepped through. Some instinct caused him to reach out to assist her before he recalled she was a servant. It was not proper. "I will see the lady's chamber, now," he said next. She cocked her head to the side with a puzzled frown. "It is but a bedchamber, lord." "In itself unusual. Few but kings and queens have such luxury as a private chamber. But I vow, I like the idea. I would see it." He thought more on that as he followed Edyt's lead out of the understory of the stone tower. Anything to keep his thoughts from the lithe, swaying motion of the enticing hips. There were many things in this castle that were very unlike things as he was accustomed to them. Even as it was now, the castle was immense. The lord's chamber was more spacious even than that of Rufus' in his hunting box at Waltham Forest, its furnishings at least as elaborate. Like the elegant

purple cloak he had removed from the earl's body, the castle's opulence seemed incongruous with this wild and rustic country. Edyt walked ahead with her smooth, lightly swaying gait back through the bailey and hall to the unusual wooden staircase and balcony at its far end. She reached for the keys that dangled from the hemp cord at her waist, and inserted one in the lock. "Why the lock?" he asked, for there was none on the lord's chamber. "It has always been there," she replied, and pushed open the heavy door. Answering, but telling him nothing. This chamber, too, was smartly fitted, with a pair of shuttered narrow windows and yellow plastered walls, in conspicuous contrast to the remainder of the somber castle. A curtained bed with feather mattress stood by another wall, with a door that led to the middle chamber. By the windows, a large chest, intricately painted, with fittings of brass. "Open it," he said, pointing to the chest. "Open it? But lord, it is of little consequence." "I would see it anyway." "It is locked." "Unlock it." As she had the key on her person, he wondered why she objected. Mayhap she felt her mistress' privacy was being invaded. She turned the key, lifted the lid, and stood away. Inside, the garments, of a good quality but more serviceable than fine, lay in neatly folded stacks, precisely fitting the chest's dimensions. Except for those on top, which were wadded into a careless ball. Silk kirtle, linen chemise, girdle. A wimple of soft silk, of a pale yellow. A metallic flash caught his eye as it tumbled into the fabric, and he probed among the folded garments after it. A ring. Gold, in an interlaced, twining pattern common to the area, yet quite old. Celtic, mayhap even a Norse design. "Tell me of this." Alain held out the ring for the girl to see. She seemed impassive except for her subtly gripped hands. "It is a gold ring." "I find you exasperating in what you do not say, Edyt. Mayhap you could tell me something I do not already know?" "It belongs to the Lady Melisande. It was a gift of her mother. And I think it is very old." "Ah. Now I have learned the lady had a mother. How enlightening. Begone, Edyt. I see I shall have to solve the puzzle alone." He saw the fleeting look of a woman slapped and knew he had taken his teasing too far. She was hardly like Chrétien, whom he could bait endlessly. He wished he had not said it. But he would not retract it. "Edyt." "Aye, lord?" "Draw me a bath. I have had enough of the dust of the road. Before supper. I like it hot." "Aye, lord." She made the merest of curtsies, before she turned and left the chamber. *** You see? He will kill you! Aye, kill you, you fool! Flee! Melisande glided away, carefully forcing each step to perfection to conceal her rampant fear. From the moment he had ridden in, and all through this hideously long interrogation, she had quaked inside, desperately schooling her face and forcing her hands to be still.

As she left the hall, she gripped her hands together so tightly her knuckles whitened, to curb their trembling. Her heart pounded so hard, she thought it might beat itself to death against her chest. Christ's blood, how had he gotten the cloak? She'd sent it with Fyren to the grave! She had wrapped it about the body, herself! There! Leave it! Let him die of it! Be still, she told the demons. I will not listen. This time, she would not let them goad her into hysteria. She needed the Norman lord alive. She could not think of herself.

CHAPTER 4 The devil voices pummeled her with their screams. She would not listen. Still, fear showed in the trembling of her hands if it did not in her eyes. She did not want to die. But the Norman's black hawk-like eyes probed her, seeking out her every weakness, finding it, lunging for it. Somehow, she must control herself. If he even sensed her fear, he would jump at it. She had been so sure the wretched thing was at last gone, buried safely out of anyone's reach. And now, he wore it about his shoulders as if he had been gifted with it personally. She would never wish such a gift on anyone, and now it was in the possession of the man she needed most to live. How long would it take to do its deed? Her mother had died within a fortnight of receiving it. Enthralled with its beauty and enraptured with the sudden, kind attention of the cruel husband who had ignored her so long, she had wrapped herself in it, and grown weaker by the day as the dye's poison seeped insidiously into her skin. Poor mother, again so trusting, discounting all the years of abuse, as if they had never happened. And Fyren had used his own daughter to deliver that carrier of death. How he had bragged, laughed at Melisande's gullibility. How long would it take, this time? She didn't know. Arsenic absorbed through the skin, but the process was passably slow. Only when the poison went through the mouth did it act with such frightening speed. If a person handled the garment, then handled food, could it not go more swiftly? Could the poison possibly be on a person's hands, even though it could not be seen? She could take no chance. She had to get it from him, destroy it permanently this time, without anyone knowing. She must be, as she had always been, solitary and secretive. None could be trusted. Not even the most loyal of her people would fail to connect her with Fyren's sorcery, and she would burn for it. Fyren was dead. She had seen him die. Yet he still reached out to haunt her, and his demons sucked her soul dry. She had been a fool, and like a fool, she had thought him finally harmless and given him the purple cloak for his shroud. Believed he merely sought to be buried in it, a symbol of his many evil triumphs. But even dying, Fyren had schemed, and knowing his enemy, had placed the malevolent garment precisely where it would tempt the Norman most. Fyren had known the Norman would take it as symbol of his victory. And if it was true, as Fyren had claimed, that the cloak was charmed with a compelling spell, then the Norman could not resist. The man seemed fond enough of it.

Even in dying, Fyren had to win. It was as if his hand reached out from the grave and snatched another victim. Never. She would not let Fyren win this time. More immediately, she had to keep her own skin. So she'd best see to the lord's bath, and quickly, lest he grow suspicious of her slothfulness. Melisande found Nelda in the kitchen, beyond the hall. "The lord wishes a bath before supper, Nelda. And he likes it hot." "Aye, la---" Melisande hissed her to silence. "Be more careful. Say nothing if you cannot trust your tongue." "Aye." Nelda's shock at her lapse hung on her face. Melisande patted her friend's shoulder to show her forgiveness. It would happen in just that way, she was sure. Someone would forget, call her by name or title. She wished she could flee. Then how was she to save the Norman from the poison of the cloak, yet save herself from him? She did not want to die. Before, she had thought it did not matter greatly. But now, suddenly it did, and she could not say why. And even more, she did not want him to die. She could see no answers. Yet, somehow, she must find a way. *** The small bath house had been Fyren's pride. Built of yellow sandstone like the hall, amidst a group of grey stone and whitewashed buildings, the little one-room structure had a hearth built to one side and a deep wooden tub, like an oversized barrel. Kettles of water steeped over the fire, and one after another were poured into the great tub until the water was at last suitable for a lord's bath. As she awaited the Norman lord's arrival, Melisande stood alone, unhappily in the company of nothing but her own fearful thoughts. She practiced a stillness of body, mimicking a statue of stone, but her hands gripped each other, fidgeting. He entered the stone bath house, and his eyes searched over every corner, a habitual thing with him, for he seemed to miss nothing. Seeing her, his black brows arched to a high angle over even darker eyes. Dread rose in her, forming a tight band about her chest as her heart pounded. Melisande gripped her hands. "Will there be anything else, lord?" "I have not finished yet, Edyt. In fact I have not yet begun." The sound of her mother's name startled her. It made a poor disguise, one that would not fool his clever mind for long. "Aye, lord. Does your squire not come to assist you?" "Squire? Why should he come? It is not his duty." Abruptly, the Norman crossed his arms before his chest, grasped his tunic and pulled it upward over his head, his powerful shoulders flexing as the garment peeled off. His black hair bunched stiffly after the tunic's passing, then settled down to skim his shoulders. She was stunned to silence. He expected her to-Melisande caught her breath, gulped. "Lord, it is not fitting--" Again he cocked his head, his angular brows raised. "Have you never helped a man with his bath, Edyt?" "I- It is not fitting." "Not fitting? But there is no lady in the household. Surely the task should fall to you." "Lady?" Melisande's voice sounded like a squealing mouse when the cat caught it.

"In the south, it is common practice. It is the duty of the lady and her daughters to assist her husband's guests in their baths." He loosened his braies. Melisande rolled her eyes upward to scan the wooden roof. "Oh." The Norman's mouth turned downward at its corners in a futile attempt to keep from laughing, then his low-pitched chuckle rumbled out like distant thunder. His laughter drew her back to him like iron to a lodestone. She shouldn't have been looking, but her gaze riveted to his lean, hard body, to a broad back with massive shoulders above solid, thickset legs and hard, round buttocks. Beneath golden skin, corded muscles flexed and changed their shape with his movements. Melisande forced her gaze back to the planks above her, concentrating on those slits where the light showed through. "Ah, yes, I see, Edyt. The roof has holes. We must see to that." The timbre of his voice danced like a lively air from a wood flute. The water splashed loudly behind her. She studied the plank roof as if she had never seen it before. The Norman let out a loud, contented sigh as he slid down into the steaming water to the wooden stool, all the way up to his neck. He leaned back, rested his head against the tub's rim, and closed his eyes. She was watching again. And the silence was intolerable. "Is it the custom of the people in the south to bathe often?" "It is my custom. But it is all too uncommon, I fear. Ah, there is little that feels as good as a tub of hot water. This bath house. This is a fine idea. Edyt, tell me about Fyren." She didn't want to talk about Fyren. But it seemed better than the embarrassing alternative. "What do you wish to know?" "What killed him." "He killed himself, so they say." "I do not believe it. He had no reason." He was too clever. And she had not thought out her strategy well enough. Her mind raced for an answer, but she blurted out the first thought that came. "The priest cursed him, but he did not believe in God. I cannot say it was the curse. But it is said he took a poison every day, so that none could poison him." "And he finally took too much?" "Mayhap." "He was an intelligent man." "He was a madman." The Norman eyed her as if she had just done something inexplicable. Then he leaned back, again closed his eyes, and his breathing became slow and easy. Melisande picked up the discarded garments littering the stone floor, folded them all neatly and set them on the low wooden bench. With the very tips of her fingers, she picked up the purple cloak, and even as she folded it, held it as far from her as she could. "Edyt." "Aye, lord." "The soap, Edyt." "Oh. Aye." She laid the cloak aside and carried the soap pot back to the tub where the Norman lord soaked himself. Great streams of water ran down from his black hair, and in rivulets down his face. He must have dunked his head while she was not looking.

"The hair, Edyt." "Hair?" "Aye, the hair. Would you not wash my hair, or must I beg?" The little room was dark, save for the small hearth fire, and Melisande said a small prayer of thanks for that. Still, standing behind his back, she could see every blessed part of his body beneath the water, from the bobbing black curls on his chest, all the way down to his toenails, and everything in between. Everything. Some parts of a man's body must be lighter than others, she thought, as they also bobbed... She busied her hands with the lather of the oozing soap, which she worked into the stark black strands. His hair became soft, silky, between her fingers. He hummed quietly, a low rumble coming up from his chest, like that great monster cat, Rufus, when he purred. For just that one moment, she would let herself savor that pleasure-- what was it? The pleasure of pleasing? She allowed her fingers to stray downward, crossing over the black points of hair at the nape of his neck, to skim over the firm rounds of muscle that filled out broad shoulders and strong arms. His resonant hum deepened, and a contented smile spread across his freshly shaven face, inviting her touch... The soap would do it. The purpose, after all, was to get the man clean, was it not? She dipped a small cloth into the little vat and conscientiously applied the soap in ever-extending circles beyond his shoulders and over the rugged ripples of his chest. The rumbling purr smoothed to contented breathing. He leaned forward. Melisande applied the soapy rag to his back and the fascinating curve of his spine, now a ridge, now indented, as he flexed his body beneath the water. Impulsively she let a finger trace downward along that enticing valley. She flinched at his sharp breath. She was no fool. She knew what that meant. That she was asking for trouble. With a sigh, she reached for the dipper, to ladle clean water over his scalp. He leaned back his head for the water to pour through his hair, and the black hair glistened in the amber firelight. He stood abruptly, with water running downward in rivulets, capturing all the black curls on his chest into undulating waves. Melisande whirled away, her mind already brimming with what her eyes had seen. She forced her gaze to the fire. His chest again rumbled with his humor as her face flared into raging red. "The soap, Edyt." "Aye." Edyt swung her arm around behind her and felt the weight of the soap pot leave her hand. Like a cat which had misjudged its leap and pretended it hadn't, she focused a fervent interest on the flames, stirred the coals, threw on another fagot, all the while listening warily to the splashing and swishing behind her. At least he chose to wash the rest of his body himself. Yet, she might have liked that too. Aye, to run soapy hands over... A noisy surge and splash distracted her once again from her attention to the fire's embers. She turned, and instantly regretted it, for his fiery gaze transfixed her. There he stood before her, utterly naked. Holy Mother! Was this the man she was expected to marry, all lean and muscled, black hair and skin glowing pink from the steamy water? Hard muscles to sweep her into his arms, carry her away whether she willed to go or not. Strong hands to pull her close, caress places she didn't want touched. And the other... Melisande swallowed hard and broke the charm, lowered her gaze. But not far enough. Instantly she recognized her mistake and returned to the somewhat safer view of his face.

In his black eyes, she saw blatant, pure lust, as naked as the man himself. A man caught suddenly and unexpectedly in the rush of desire. She wanted to flee. Dared not. With sudden, overwhelming clarity, Melisande understood she had been terribly wrong. All Normans were not alike, after all.

CHAPTER 5 Nay. Alain forced himself to turn away. However he might want her, and he realized with a jolt like lightning that he did, he must be more responsible than that. He had pledged himself to fair treatment for all those of the hall, and what his mind and body were considering for her was anything but fair. It could ruin her. Destroy her. And he had grown to like the girl, melancholy though she was. He had not thought of her in that way before this moment. It had come to him like a blow, when he had seen something akin to it in her own eyes. That made the attraction doubly dangerous. Not to him, but to her. It would not do. Then in place of taking her into his arms, he reached for the soft linen cloth she had placed on the wooden bench, relieved that he did not have to take it directly from her. He made great work of the toweling off, even more of dressing, meaning to make the point clear to her that she could be safe with him. He had to make it equally as clear to himself. Clothed at last, and relieved that his body had chosen to take the hint, he turned again to face her. In her hands she held the folded purple mantle as she walked toward the bath house's low door. "Edyt. Where do you go with that?" "I thought to take it to the fuller, lord. It needs to be cleaned." "Does it? It does not seem dirty to me." "It is the smell. It has the smell of death about it." "I have not noticed anything. Leave it, Edyt. Such fine garments should not be cleaned, save when they must." With a thoughtful frown, the girl lifted the fabric to her nose and sniffed. Her nostrils flared. "It is still there. The fuller will get it out." "Edyt, I say it does not need it. Mayhap the smell is mine, rather than the garment's." "It is not. But two people have died in it, lord." "It is not cursed, I am sure." "I only object to the smell, lord." "Nay, I tell you. And why do you fold it, if you intend only to have it cleaned?" "I-- fold things." "Well, do not bother with it, Edyt. It is not your concern. Leave it." The girl stared with her enigmatic blue eyes as she lay the cloak down on the wooden bench before turning away. As she stepped outside the door, brilliant sunshine bounced off her pale yellow hair and made it glow like first sunlight on dewy spider webs. He caught his breath. Odd girl. And forgetful of her manners, too. But he'd speak to Thomas about correcting her, rather than do so himself. ***

Nay. Nay, nay, nay! If he told his body often enough, mayhap it would cease its provocations. He had never been a man to be controlled by his passions, and he was not willing to allow it now. Alain had caught himself staring over the top of his silver-trimmed horn cup full of dark wine, watching the girl as she moved about the hall and supervised the supper meal. He was not the only one. The hall was full of knights and soldiers who followed with covert eyes the servant girl with the yellow braid. Gerard, he thought, showed more than common interest. Mayhap there was an attachment between them. The thought raised his hackles, yet-- yet it was a thought worth pursuing. He'd be less inclined to follow his passions if he knew her to belong to another man. Then that was what he must do. He did not want entanglements that would obstruct his marriage, and it certainly would not be advisable to maintain mistress and wife in the same hall. He had never intended to have a mistress, once married. Not before now. Nor did he want to ruin the girl, who, despite her servitude seemed to be gently born. He knew little about her, save that she was freeborn, and served where her mother had served before. Mayhap a family down on their fortunes. "There is little enough to worry us, Alain," said Robert, drawing Alain's attention back to the knights who ate at the trestle table with him. "We do not need all of them, do we?" "We do not?" He had lost the train of the talk. "One disgruntled archer, Alain. It is no cause to hold so many here for defense. The castle does not need such a large force until Rufus comes. We should see what needs to be controlled down river." "Aye. But we will do as we are bidden, and defend and hold this castle. When Rufus needs more men, he will call for them. They will stay, for now." "You make too much of a scratch, Alain," said Chrétien. "Rufus knows naught of this valley, save what we report to him." "Your scratch has naught to do with it, Chrétien. What think you, Thomas? Is the threat against this castle more than one disgruntled archer?" "Aye. Much more." "Then, from where comes the threat?" "Strathclyde, largely." "And not among the knights of this demesne?" "There are those, as well. Those who have no wish to be in the service of a Norman king, nor to cede their land. You must realize, lord, much of this land has been passed down from father to son for hundreds of years. It is a hard thing to give up willingly. So they would ally with Strathclyde." "Strathclyde is Malcolm's, now." "Aye. They would change that, too." Alain caught his attention wandering, and again forced his gaze away from Edyt and her butter-yellow braid. If he must think about how her hair would flow about her body, he'd do it later. "And how does this fit with Fyren's plans?" "They merely take his place. Anwealda, especially." Thomas swirled the dregs of his wine in the maple maser he held. "I am not as knowledgeable as you believe, lord, for I was not always privy to their secrets. What I know, I know by the directive of Lady Melisande, who bade me listen at walls."

"Fyren did not trust you," surmised Chrétien. "Then, why should we?" "You should not, on so little knowledge. You would not expect those of this hall to trust you, yet. Neither do we expect such a thing of you." Chrétien gave a small and solemn nod. "I suspect his distrust recommends you, if he was the thief of souls that we have heard." "And you, Gerard?" asked Alain. The man's brown eyes seemed almost to be burning. Was it jealousy he felt? "I support you as my Lady Melisande bids me." "And you have no opinion?" "Nay." "Ah. And where might she be, that she commands you so well?" "I have told you, she is gone. I have naught else to say." Alain considered Gerard more closely. "You are a man of divided loyalties, then. For how could a knight pledge to the same lord who seeks his lady to wed against her will?" "I have given my word, as she asked of me." "But will you not defend the lady against me?" "Mayhap." "And if you know her whereabouts, you will not tell me." "I will not." "Nor will I," said another knight, Wallis by name. "I hope she is gone forever." "Do you? How so?" "I hope she may never be forced to share the bed of a Norman." Two Normans leapt up to the challenge, reaching for their swords before they realized they had none on them. Wallis shoved back the long bench where he sat with the Saxons, almost as if no others sat upon it. But he too had no sword. Alain jumped, grabbed both of Hugh's arms before he could leap across the table; Chrétien bound Robert. Thomas and Gerard held Wallis fast. "Enough! There will be no brawls in my hall!" "You heard him. You think you can trust such a man at your back?" Hugh struggled against Alain's strong grip, then realized it was his lord who held him, and calmed. "Better to know a man's heart, Hugh. Now, sit, or leave the hall." All three combatants sat, sullen frowns across their faces. Alain, sensing the volatile moment had passed, glanced about the hall. Edyt stood with the serving women and pages, her frightened doe-like eyes fixed upon him. He had the perplexing notion that he did not want to displease her. "The lady's fate is not in your hands, Gerard, nor yours, Wallis. Mayhap those who choose to protect the lady will come to recognize she is meant no harm." "Nevertheless, you question our loyalty, lord," reminded Gerard. Alain leaned back in the lord's chair and slowly nodded. "But I spoke wrongly. We confuse fealty with loyalty, and they are not the same. All of you, by virtue of your fiefs, owe to me your knight's service. And if I do not get it, you will not keep your land. It is a time-honored exchange. But that is not loyalty. Your loyalty I must earn, just as it has been earned by your Lady Melisande. I mean to do that. But the task is mine, not yours. In the same way, you may earn my loyalty to you." The Saxon knights glanced sideways at each other and of a mass swirled their wine in their cups. Alain suspected he was not entirely believed. But he would take his own counsel, and let time prove him right.

Satisfied that peace was restored, Alain also sat and returned to his horn of wine. Normans were only rarely liked in this country, for the brutal memory of the Conqueror's savagery in the North still hung heavily. He had heard over the years that many from Northumberland and Durham had fled into Strathclyde, and some might well be among the population here. He meant to do well by these people, but some would suffer. That was the nature of conquest. If it placed the lady in jeopardy, would Gerard and his men rise up against their new lord to protect the lady? Likely, they would. In an odd sort of way, he admired that. Alain sought a less volatile subject. To the Saxons he asked for descriptions of their holdings. He was a generous man, but, they would learn, not so much that he would reward men if they turned against him. It was something he could not resolve at the moment, but would have to, soon. And without the lady, there was little chance of that. But where could she have gone? Alain finished the wine in his horn, and realized that he was beginning to feel the flush. His hand had an odd shake to it as he set the silver-trimmed horn down on the white linen cloth. Too much wine, no doubt. *** "Lady, I did not mean--" "Hush," said Melisande. "For all that you would help me, you will surely be my death. This is my battle, Gerard." "But if he should find--" "If he should, then I tell you, you must leave what happens to me. You cannot divide the knights. And you cannot fight against him without destroying everything I treasure." "Aye. But do you not think another way might be found? As the lord is not yet wed, mayhap it would be enough if he merely knew why." "You know enough of Normans, Gerard. Do you think he would be so easily satisfied? This hall will never be truly his without that wedding, and all know it. I will not have it." A shadow fell between them. Melisande's breath sucked in sharply. Gerard straightened his back, drew his lower lip into a tight line across his teeth. Even within the darkness near the entrance, Melisande could recognize the Norman lord by his shape and the way he walked as he approached. His keen eyes surveyed them both separately and together, and an odd smile quirked at one corner of his mouth. He wore the purple cloak. He wore it every day, doting on it as much as had her poor mother, and as innocently. And why would he not? The magnificent garment on the magnificent man. Surely he looked more regal than a king. "Good morrow, Edyt, Gerard. Is aught amiss?" Her mind raced backward to recapture the last words spoken, that he might have overheard. And she hastily replied. "Nay, lord, only that I wish Gerard to speak to his knights about bones thrown to the dogs at supper. I will not have it in my-- your hall, lord. I beg your pardon, that I should be so bold as to claim it for my own, but--" Again the corner of his mouth twitched, and his eyes slitted into narrow amusement. "It is naught. As long as you think of it as yours, you will give it good care. Then I agree, Gerard, and my men are equally as guilty. I also do not want bones on the floor of my hall. See to it that the word is known among all those who sup with us." Melisande watched Gerard's reaction, prayed he would catch the spirit and carry it on.

"Aye, lord, it shall be done." Gerard gave a slight, curt bow to the lord. An unusual abruptness marked his step as he turned to leave through the same pair of doors where the Norman lord had entered. "Gerard," he called. Melisande had seen him do this before. He had caught her off her guard, too, with this trick. Gerard did not know. But he gave naught away in his face. "Aye, lord?" "I would have you tell me all the places the Lady Melisande might have gone." "I know not, lord." "Mayhap you do not. But I will have from you all those who are related, or who might be friends. We will not get far, to search only within these walls." "Aye, lord." Again, although with a nearly hidden spark of defiance, Gerard turned and left. Alain then turned to her. "And you as well, Edyt. Bring me some wine and come to the lord's chamber. I will write the names of all those you know." "I do not think I can help you very much." But Melisande already knew him for the most determined of men. Resistance only made her more obvious. She felt his eyes boring into her as she hurried to the buttery. But she could not tell what was in the soul behind them. Did he see something in the way she walked? Had someone accidentally told the Norman enough that he saw a connection between the servant Edyt and the missing lady? She requested a jug of the deep red wine the Nornmans had brougth with them from the botler. A surge of apprehension coursed through her as she returned, so that she had to force her feet to an even pace. He waited in the hall. She had not expected that. But she was quickly learning to be wary of his unpredictable behavior. Within it lay many traps, all of them with hard, sharp teeth. He said he meant her no ill, but once he learned her secrets, he would change his mind. Melisande again matched the rhythm of her steps to calming breaths. She smoothed her face to her mask of nothingness. As she followed him, each footfall on the stone floor echoed quietly, like the faint swishing of leaves on a gusty day. She counted them as she did when descending into the cavern below. In its turn, the enforced pace brought her more composure. Mayhap she would survive one more encounter. *** Bones on the floor. Alain snickered to himself. Did they truly think he believed that? Mayhap Gerard did fancy the girl. There was a certain intimacy in the way they talked. Well, he had to do it. He could hardly concentrate on necessities as it was. He'd make a point of talking about it with her. Alain walked past the dais and turned to climb the wooden stairs. Shouts rang from the bailey like bells. He spun in his tracks, sped toward the hall door, meeting Gerard running back in. His eyebrows rose sharply with the unspoken question. "They found a knight dead!" "Norman or Saxon?" "Norman, I think. I have not seen. In the new tower." Alain had put a man there the night before, thinking of the vulnerable bolt hole. He rushed past Gerard out into the bailey, up the slope and inside the tower. Ahead, four men bent over, about to lift the body. "Leave him there!" Alain ran up to the startled men, who rose and stood back from the body. "Is this how you found him?" "Aye, lord, here."

"Have you moved him at all?" "Robert lifted his head, but no more," said Hugh. "He is dead, lord." "Who?" But he saw for himself. Not the guard he had expected, but his knight, Jean Nouel. Alain knelt beside him. The light from a small horn lantern shone on the blood that had oozed onto the stone floor and matted Jean Nouel's blond hair. A lump hardened in his throat as he brushed his fingers over Jean Nouel's eyelids to close them. A good knight. A friend. "He could have fallen, Alain." Alain looked up at Chrétien and shook his head. But to be sure, he scanned the unfinished floor, its beams spanning the tower above the vaulted arches of the undercroft. Above that, blue spring sky. "Is this the way his head was found?" "Nay, lord," said Robert, and gently moved the dead man's head back to the way he had found it, flung back and to the side. Robert's fingers grazed tenderly across the bloody hair on his friend's head. "It could only be that his neck was broken." "How, then?" Alain felt for the bones in the neck. He slowly nodded. A man could not move his head that way, and the neck bones were fractured. The jaw, as well, as if Jean Nouel had landed on it. Alain stood, crossed his arms. "He fell, I am sure, but that does not explain the wound on the back of his head." He caught the glimpse of Edyt's yellow braid, falling over her shoulder as she came up and bent down to the broken body. "Do not trouble yourself, Edyt. You can do naught." He saw then the merest flicker of something beyond that of a woman doing duty for her Norman lord, before the mask slipped once more into place. He could not define it. Fear? A sadness, for a man she had not known? Something stalked this hall. Not merely something that sought to rid the place of the intruders. Something familiar to her, and to those who lived here with her. What were they hiding? He grew impatient with their infernal silence, their half-answers that had little meaning. Anger surged. "You have sent for Father Hardouin?" "Aye, lord, he comes." "Then do what must be done. You may have use of the hall. I am sorry, Robert. I know he was your friend." "Aye." "Edyt, you will come with me." "But lord, I will be needed to help with the arrangements." "Appoint someone. You will come with me." He did not wait for her response, but spun around and strode from the tower. "I cannot think what you want of me, lord," she said, hurrying to catch up with his long stride. Alain felt no sympathy for her plight. "You cannot?" "Nay, lord." "What do you know of this, Edyt?" "Naught, save that, I disbelieve your man died of the fall, as might appear." "And again, Edyt, you tell me no more than I have already learned. Yet, you know more than you tell me."

"Nay, lord. I know naught more." "Do you not? And what did you whisper with Gerard, this morning? The man shows uncommon interest in you." "I have told you." "Bones? Nay, Edyt. You play me for a fool, and I am not fond of the part. You will tell me. Do you conspire with him?" "Conspire? Nay, lord." "So you, like all the others here, have naught but support and love for the Norman overlord?" "Mayhap not love, lord. But the castle is yours, and all within it. We are bound to your will." "And how is this so easily come by?" "Because all know, at your very worst, you will be better than what we had." "Is it so? Do you not think this sudden change of loyalty suspect? When all the North burns with hatred for the Normans? Jean Nouel died because he saw something, Edyt. And I will know what it was." "Mayhap only Jean Nouel knows. I know not." "I see the fear in your eyes, Edyt. What do you fear? That you will be caught in your own trap?" Now the blue eyes flashed the fire of defiance. "If you think me guilty, then punish me and have done with it." Alain felt himself flinch under her glare. So, he was pursuing the wrong direction. "What does Gerard have to do with you?" "Naught. But I have the keeping of the household, and I ofttimes overreach myself." "Bones, again. I think not. I will find the bottom of this, Edyt. You'd best not be there." Alain kept up his rapid pace as Edyt struggled behind him, for he had not yet dismissed her, and would not. He meant to keep her within his sight for the day. She knew something. Through the hall and up the wooden stairs to the lord's chamber, she trailed behind him as if led by a leash. Shame crept up on him. She had not given him reason for his mistrust. If she had private discourse with Gerard, was that reason? Nay. But he hadn't liked it. He had pretended even to himself to be bemused. Ha. He was jealous. That was what colored his mood so black. But this maid could not be his. He must find that damnably evasive Lady Melisande who looked like everyone and no one, and get his mind off this girl. And if he had to marry Edyt off to Gerard, or anyone else, he would do it. By Christ's Holy Blood, he would. Alain stomped through the doorway into his chamber and gave the heavy door a hard shove, slamming it into its jamb. "Again, Edyt, who is Gerard to you?" "A knight in my lord's service." "Naught else? He shows uncommon interest in you." "I am not such a woman as you infer, lord." "Then, who are you?" "Who? I do not understand." "Who, Edyt? Where is your family? Are you one of those who fled from the east into Cumbria?" "I-- my family is all gone, lord. And I am too young to remember those terrible times. Mayhap Thomas can tell you more." Aye, she would not have yet been born. "Then did your family come from there?"

"My mother, I think. She was from Durham." "Ah. At last the fair Edyt has almost given an answer." "I do not know if Durham is east of here, lord. I know naught of it." Of course. How would she know? Few but soldiers would have known where Durham lay. He had mistaken an intelligent mind for one with knowledge. "Aye," he replied at last. "Durham is to the east. You may go, Edyt." With a silent bob of her head, she skittered quickly toward the door. Well, this time, she made no great pretense at composure. He was sorry he had frightened her. Mayhap he would find a way of being kinder to her. It was distance from her that he needed. Well, mayhap he needed to speak first to Gerard. Later. Alain walked slowly to the slim double-arched window that overlooked the bailey. Below, the yellow braid that danced behind Edyt's lithe back switched back and forth as she hastened over the hard-packed ground. She stopped in front of the stables and spoke to Gerard.

CHAPTER 6 The demons assailed her, screaming in her mind as she ran. Kill him! Kill him! He knows! He does not! Kill him before it is too late! Kill him or they will burn you! He lusts for you. You are evil. They will burn you. She ran, fleeing the voices, fleeing the man. She would not hear them. If they killed her, it did not matter. It did not matter. She was doomed, anyway. "Edyt, what?" She startled at the sound of Gerard's voice and the gentle grip on her arm, for she had not thought of where she ran. "Naught. 'Tis naught but that I must hurry. The Norman knight must have a proper burial." "He has frightened you." "Aye," she admitted, "but it is naught. He thinks us lovers because we spoke this morning." "Then I will speak to him. He presumes too much." "Do you not see the danger in jumping into the pot he stirs? Do not respond. He is far too clever." "Edyt--" "I beg you, Gerard. Let it go." "You play a dangerous game. But it shall be as you wish." Melisande could not even manage a bleak smile before she moved on, but she paused to recapture her composure. She crossed the bailey to assist the priest with the chapel. *** By God's Blood, he would get his mind off that girl. He did not need a yellow-haired temptress to complicate his life, telling him first that she had no attachment to the knight Gerard, then running straight to him. He was perfectly in control of himself. He just needed to keep himself busy. Needed to ride

out, that was it. His men had been clamoring for it. Alain bolted to the chamber door and barked down at Thomas below in the hall. Quickly, he was rewarded by a chamber full of his most powerful knights. "Thomas, you were to name the absent knights." "Aye, lord. Anwealda and Dougal are to the north, Cyneric to the south and east." "Send for them." "I have done so, lord, but they cannot be found." "If they are not found soon, their fiefs will be forfeit. Are these men you trust, Thomas?" "Nay." "Or you, Gerard?" "One, mayhap, not the other two." "Then I should consider the one?" "I said only that I might trust him. But he will go with Strathclyde." "Wallis?" "I say the same." "Then we must not waste time. Have the holdings seized." Chrétien cleared his throat as a deep frown etched itself into his brows. "It is one thing to check the lay of the land, Alain, but quite another to seize it. You weaken the defense of the castle to send men out." He had been expecting Chrétien's natural caution to resurface, once the bravado from his wound wore off. "Aye, Chrétien. But we must also protect Rufus's rear when he passes through. And we must do what can be done to clear the way north. Those excess men who worried you can be put to good use keeping Anwealda and Dougal from securing their holdings." Wallis folded his long arms over his chest. "Do you trust Saxons to do this for you, lord?" "As you know you cannot unseat us, aye. I think so." "And when does Rufus come?" "Soon. A fortnight, mayhap a little more." "I do not like it, Alain. To divide our forces at such a time--" "Anwealda's fortress is easily within a day's return trip," said Thomas. "Dougal's, barely farther. With luck, both could be had within a few days." "Then, Thomas, you must mind the castle. You, too, Robert, for you must see to Jean Nouel. We shall ride out, see what we can, do what we can. At the least, we must make a plan to contain them. Beyond, that is Rufus' job." "How far does he go?" Thomas asked. "To the Solway Firth. This will fix his border from Northumberland, across. The Solway makes for a natural defense, along with the Cheviot Hills." "Does he not covet Scotland?" "Every monarch covets all of the Isle. But Rufus is prudent. Mayhap, Scotland tomorrow. Why do you laugh, Chrétien?" "I have never heard Rufus described as prudent." "In this respect, only." "And what will Malcolm do?" asked Gerard. "He is not prudent. In this respect or any." Thomas nodded his agreement. "He will certainly do something, lord. Mayhap he would counter Rufus at Carlisle. But he would more likely come south through Durham and swing west to cut off Rufus from the rear."

"Little impedes Rufus before Carlisle," said Hugh. "Mayhap he should hold back men to close like pincers upon Malcolm." "Aye, 'tis a good thought," said Robert. "Mayhap we'll let them pass, come in behind, let Rufus turn on them." "Nay, but you are not far off," Alain replied. "We will do as much, but hold them here. Then Rufus will turn on them and catch them between us." "I like it," said Thomas. "As do I," Gerard agreed. Chrétien watched the Saxon knights closely. "You have no love for Strathclyde, then?" To this, Thomas grinned. "We are not Strathclyde. It is long defunct, and naught more than a buffer for Malcolm's Scotland. He does naught to stop Scottish raids." "Aye," agreed Wallis. "We have been Saxon too long for the Scots to change us." Alain was not satisfied. There was still that last concern. "And what of the Lady Melisande? Does she wait in ambush?" "Nay." Thomas shook his head along with his denial. "And you, Gerard?" "She will not fight you. Lady Melisande is not your enemy." "Mayhap. Will she also learn that I am not hers?" Thomas and Gerard looked at each other, but made no reply. Alain gave out an impatient sigh. "Well, then, we ride." Chrétien held back as the Saxons and other Normans left the chamber, and stood aside while Alain's squire worked the hauberk over Alain's head and shoulders. "I like it not, Alain. Too much depends on your trust of these Saxons." "Gerard is not Saxon, but Norman." "His skin, only." "Mayhap. But if he chose to deceive us, he would not show his loyalty for his lady so openly. We have naught without them, and they have naught without us, so what do we risk?" *** The way north led through the Eden River's valley that was a lush green, with the eagerness of early spring forcing up through the still cold earth even before the mountains gave up their caps of snow. The horses breathed great frosty plumes in the cold air as they trod along a road that was hardly worth the name. Mud oozed wherever it ran too low or spanned some tiny rill. Only where it crossed over hard stone was the footing sound. Gerard rode at the lead, for he knew the land ahead. Wearing his heavy helm and Norman mail, Alain could tell little difference between Gerard and the men who had been under his command through the Normandy and Brittany campaigns. Gerard was Norman, Norman in his battle gear, Norman in the way he sat a horse, forward and straight-legged. Yet, Chrétien was right. Norman in skin only. Like Chrétien, he pondered the limits of the man's trustworthiness. Yet he gave the man authority. He could not defend his decision with reason, for it was but instinct. The sort of decision he was likely to make, unlike Chrétien, who would never make such a gamble. If he was wrong, Rufus would fail. Before the sun reached its zenith, they rounded the curve of a steep hill that led them from one wide dale into an even wider one.

"There, lord," said Gerard. "There lies Anwealda's holding, against the slope, close by the beck." "Not an imposing one," replied Alain. Hardly what he had expected. "It is not. But if any thinks to take Fyren's place, it would be Anwealda. His holdings are spread out, but large. It is not the same here as in the south. Here, the folk live scattered about on their lands. Villages are not so common, and manors tend to be small and isolated." "Aye, I had noticed that. Mayhap folk will consider castles to be more to their liking if they may be better defended." "Aye. Things are changing. But change comes slowly here." Alain strained his eyes to observe the holding below. He should have been able to see it better. He blinked, squinted, focused again. Ah, that was better. Nay, it blurred again. He shook his head, but the haziness would not dislodge. "Chrétien," called Alain. "What do you see?" "I?" Chrétien cocked his head at a curious angle. "I see little of what I expected. Either the knights are hidden, or they are gone. I do not think we could have surprised them." "Unless there was none to warn them we are coming. Caution, Gerard." "Nay, lord, look." As if a maw had sprung open and disgorged itself of its contents, a mass of horses with riders leapt out from the confines of the holding, and dashed toward the far slope. The forest's dark green swallowed up the knights. Only an occasional flash of armor betrayed their path up the hill. "Go!" shouted Alain. Gerard sped ahead. Chrétien's grey charger already hurled itself forward to vie for the lead. Down the hillside the knights raced, Saxon and Norman, toward the gaping gate. "Caution," urged Chrétien as they approached. The great stallions danced within their reins, impatient for a brawl. Gerard spurred his white horse through the gate, Alain close behind, for he had given this charge to Gerard. The wooden gate hung unevenly, a sign of an unkempt hold. He signaled to Chrétien to chase the fleeing knights. Chrétien bolted away, his knights close behind him. "What think you, Gerard?" "That we will find none but villeins. They have fled." "And a second time, no battle. This country is puzzling." "Aye." "Leave some men, and let us join the chase. We may have caught them unprepared. We outnumber them." "Mayhap. Or they could lead us to more of their kind." "All the better for us." Alain spurred away toward the hill. By the time they reached the point where the valley floor met the steeper slope, Gerard joined them again. "We found no knights within the hold, lord." Alain nodded and concentrated on the climb ahead as they raced to catch up to Chrétien and the other Normans. The knights followed the rough trail that paralleled the river as it wound through the woods until it rose from the valley onto the dale's steep slopes. And only the occasional hoof mark showed where a metal shoe struck rock to leave a powdery scar.

The momentary blurriness in his eyes had passed, and Alain focused his attention on the higher slopes and valleys beyond. For all that he could see, the refugees had put sufficient distance between them that they would not be caught. He was about to call halt to the chase when Gerard raised his hand. "Wait," called the knight. Alain's curiosity piqued, he reined in his bay stallion, bringing the animal to a stop beside Gerard. "It is a trap," said Gerard. "I know this land." "How so?" "Beyond the next ridge, the trail narrows beside a steep cliff. There, we must go singly for a ways, and cannot turn around, for the way is barely wide enough for one horse to pass through. Then a wide and shallow slope opens up. They would lay in ambush there. They could pick us off one at a time, and there is naught we could do." "There is no other way?" "Aye, there is, but it requires a risk." "Go on." "There is another route that takes us around the other side of the mountain, then over the low pass where they will wait. They will not expect you to know that." "But they may know you are with us." "Truly said. I could take my men around, while you wait here. You could pretend to look for signs, as if you have lost them, then perhaps give the look that you have left. But you must wait for us to chase them into your hands." "It requires you to divide your men once again, Alain," said Chrétien. "Aye. We could all circle around, but then would have none to catch them as they come out." Gerard's gauntleted hands tensed around the reins and his brown eyes burned with energy. "You must keep them confined to the path near the cliff, and turn their advantage against them." Alain studied Gerard's intense face, weighed the risks. If Gerard was right, and followed his plan, they would soon have Anwealda's men in their hands, if they had not gone elsewhere instead. But that presented no risk for the moment. "As it is Anwealda, he knows you well, does he not? Will he not know how you will act?" "To some extent. But he will not think the great Norman lord will put confidence in the plan of one of my ilk. Yet, he might guess my thinking. And then he will wait at the top of the pass and bear down on us when we are most vulnerable." "Wallis?" asked Alain, turning to face the sullen Saxon. "Mayhap he will. Anwealda is clever, and his force is strong. Those who fled his compound were only a portion of his men. Yet he could not have planned an ambush in advance. He had not the time." "Unless he knew we were coming," said Chrétien. Hugh shook his head. "Then he would be sitting in that hanging valley with more of his knights. And we trap even more of them. But we could be outnumbered." Gerard nodded. His intense brown eyes challenged the Norman lord to trust him. Did he dare? As quickly as the stroke of lightning, Alain raised his arm and jabbed his hand in the direction of the rear pass. Battle fire glowed in the young warrior's eyes as he dashed forth, pursued by his eager knights. And Alain knew he had made the right decision.

The waiting was the hard part, and the illusion of searching for the enemy's tracks. His men dismounted and searched the rocky ground, for the path they believed Anwealda's men had taken was far from the most obvious one. They backtracked to another junction, sent men ahead each way. They returned, tried another path. Anwealda must surely think them stupid. They mulled about, as if confused. After a short while, they followed a false trail, then returned to where they had been before Gerard had departed. Great, fierce battle cries rang out from over the ridge. Hooves thundered. Shouts, clashes of metal against metal, and the screams of horses and of men. Alain felt his blood rise, eager to join the fight. He held his ground, as he had promised. He hid his men off the trail where it emerged from the impossibly narrow path that ran by the cliff. The clangor of battle grew louder, horses and men raising shrill cries together. "Watch closely," he warned Chrétien and Hugh. "Be sure it is Anwealda's men we catch in our snare." "If Gerard is wrong--" Alain slanted a worried look at Chrétien. "Then we will lose him. We cannot enter the path without ruining his chances." "And if he betrays you?" "He will not, not yet. He would attempt to win my confidence first." "But he might be better rid of the Normans sooner." The thunder of hooves echoed off the high stone cliff, and Alain raised his hand, held it high, waiting. Waiting. The first bloodied rider rode around the ridge. Then another. Alain's upraised hand chopped downward through the air. His knights exploded from the dense forest toward the path. Chrétien led. The first Saxon raised his blade, but Chrétien struck the first blow. The knight went down. The second knight pushed past, his great horse leaping over the fallen warrior. Two Normans caught him, the blows knocking him from his saddle. Alain's Normans blocked the upward slope, leaving only the steep, rocky slope below for escape. The next two Saxons leapt from their horses, stumbled down the slope, tripped, fell, and rolled, screaming, downhill. Alain whirled back to the battle, where two others forced their way through, swords cutting swift arcs in the air. One, his horse reared high, brought his sword down, caught Hugh across his helm. The blow glanced off, then slammed hard on Hugh's mail-covered shoulder. Alain swung his sword and cut the Saxon through his chest. The next knight broke free and sped forth along the rain of blows, shield high. Another Norman knight struck low, brought down the horse. The knight fell to his knees, then to the earth, as blows rained on him. Beyond them, the Saxon knights halted on the cramped confines of the trail, assaulted from behind and ahead. Loud screams echoed from around the curve of the hill, then silence. Only four knights still rode, their swords and shields thrown down. Alain gave a signal to cease. The remaining Saxons rode forth, lit down from their mounts, knelt before them. All minor knights, the kind who did as their lord demanded, and knew little of great plans. Alain held a kind of pity for them, as he did for all men who lived and died at the behest and whim of others. With a silent nod he accepted their surrender.

Behind them Gerard rode, leading his men, pushing forward past the constricted trail and its sheer cliff. No smile of triumph lit his face, despite his earlier excitement in anticipation of coming battle. Not a true killer, Alain observed, relieved. Alain felt a sudden kinship to the man then, as he did with Chrétien. Both, like him, would fight because that was what the world demanded of them. Fight or die. Fight or lose to death all those one loved. But they were not eager to kill. Mayhap then the Lady Melisande, whom Gerard respected, was equally worthy. He doubted Gerard would give his regard lightly. Gerard had lost no knights, but two were injured. Both could ride. Of his own knights, only Hugh sustained serious injury. But he would heal. The helm had diverted the force of the enemy sword, which may already have been badly dulled from the fighting, and the chain mail had been sufficient to absorb the remainder. But Hugh's arm hung limply from the broken collar bone, and his mail had left its angry imprint on the skin. "We'll return to Anwealda's holding for the night," Alain decided. To the four captured Saxon knights, Alain gave back their horses, that they might ride and not slow down their captors as they hastened down the ragged trail to Anwealda's holding. These four, if they sought forgiveness, would pay a price for it. Information was what he wanted. "Anwealda was not among them," Gerard informed his lord. "Find out from them where he is, and what are his intentions." "Wallis will be the man for that, lord. One of them is Cyneric's man, whom he knows." "So Anwealda and Cyneric plot together?" "Mayhap, as they both had strong ties with Fyren." "It makes no sense. With Fyren dead, and his knights in Rufus' hands, they have no power." "Save with Malcolm, who needs more than just Strathclyde's knights to overwhelm Rufus. Northward of here, none have fortified their holdings into castles in the Norman style. They cannot hold against Rufus without Malcolm." "Nor is this holding Norman. These walls could hold none but wild dogs back. But not even Fyren's stoneworks make sense to me. Tell me, Gerard, why did Fyren build where he did?" "It was an ancient monastery, said to have been sacked by Vikings. Fyren merely added to and reinforced what he found." "He would have been better off to carry away the stones to a better location." "I am bound to believing the place has secrets neither you nor I know. Fyren was a sly man." "As in the bolt hole? It is clever enough, but at the same time, it makes the entire castle vulnerable." "You found it, then?" "Edyt showed me, after some persuasion." Gerard's brown eyes narrowed along with his suspicious frown. Alain studied the man. "I did not hurt her, Gerard. I do not hurt women. I merely persuaded her it was my right to know. You are fond of the girl." "Aye. She is well liked." "So much so that you make yourself her protector?" "As she has no one else, aye. I do the same for any woman. I do not believe men should make war on women and children." "So I might lose a good knight because of a maid?" "It could happen." "And how is it that you find yourself so far north, here in this wilderness?"

"I could not conscience the rapacity of William's knights, nor that of Rufus. I came north looking for better." "Fyren was better?" "It was my mistake to trust in the man. But once sworn--" Alain again surveyed the young knight, found no hint of dishonesty. Did he hold himself to the high honor he expressed? Or was he more clever than Alain thought him to be? "And who killed Fyren?" Gerard almost jumped at the startling question. A sly chuckle slipped out. "I did not. And beyond that, I do not care. Only that he is dead." "He was murdered." "Mayhap. Or, it was the curse." "You believe that?" "I? I believe naught." Alain let it go. Gerard would reveal no more, for now. "The sun sets soon. We must be through the walls before then." "Aye. Let us hurry. The injured will need rest." Below, the square of grey limestone that formed the walls of Anwealda's holding glowed gold with the late sun. Alain spurred his bay charger ahead, and led the string of knights out of the hills onto the green valley. *** Alain woke in Anwealda's cold and drafty hall. His stomach roiled with nausea from the reeking stench, and his head pounded as if he had drunk all the wine in the buttery. He had slept on the filthy straw of the earth floor with his men, wrapped tightly in his heavy purple mantle to ward off the cold. The place was easily as primitive and unkempt as it had appeared from his first glance. He rose to his feet and shook off the moldy straw, feeling odd in the head, as if he still suffered the results of a night's drinking. That did not fit with the facts, for he rarely indulged heavily, and had not done so the previous night. There had been naught with which to indulge, for Anwealda had removed everything of use to a conqueror before departing. There was no food in this place, either, for Anwealda had left his own people to starve. Ah. Of course he had. Anwealda and his men would be holed up somewhere in the hills with all they had taken. Likely, Dougal's as well. From there they could strike like vipers, coming from nowhere, disappearing into naught. He must find them before Rufus entered the valley. Several men stirred. Alain signaled to them to wake the remainder. He pulled on his mail and stepped outside, observing the first pink streaks of sunlight on the eastern horizon. He left the injured knights to rest in the hall, along with those he assigned to defend it, and with them the meager stores they had brought along. Then the Normans rode out, took Dougal's hold as easily as they had Anwealda's. But it, too, was stripped. Only the villeins were left behind. To starve. *** Melisande hurried out from the hall to watch the tired knights as they raised their pennon and rode up to the castle. The gate creaked open, and the weary war horses crossed the wooden bridge in pairs. They were nearly a day late. Her eyes fixed on the Norman lord's face, and he turned, catching her in the act. She felt a flush rise, and looked away, seeing he was unharmed. Save for what that damnable cloak might be doing to him.

"Supper may still be had, lord," she said with a calm that belied her inner turmoil. "I shall have it reheated." "Do not wait to reheat it. We have starved for more than a day. We had only what we took along, and had to share with the villeins left behind." "You were successful?" "Aye." A simple exchange. Little more than news and wish-you-wells. But his eyes, like dark charcoal afire, consumed her. She felt charred to ashes by the incendiary gaze. As it had before, her heart began to pummel her chest from inside, and fear flowed through her veins. Want and fear vied for her attention, battled to tear her apart. She almost had to shake her head to break the spell. But it was he who first turned away, then strode up the bailey's slope and entered the hall. Both relieved and disappointed, Melisande called for the kitchen staff to bring back what had already been served, and gave her attention to the wounded men. "They have set the bone well," she told Hugh, examining his broken collar bone. "It will hold and be straight if you make no attempt to use it. But you will cripple your arm for life and be of no use to anyone if you do not heed me." Chrétien backed her threat with an order. She treated the raw skin with her ointment. Two men had vicious slashes that were already festering. She cleaned them with wine and dressed them. The others did not worry her. While she worked, the other knights, freed from their hauberks and helms, eagerly sat to eat. Despite their weariness, the knights bantered loudly, boisterously, over their successes. But the Norman lord sat quietly, frowning, rubbing his temples. She caught herself glancing again and again at him. "Edyt," he said in his deep, gravelly voice, "bring me more wine. My head pounds like a drum." Headaches. Her mother had had them, too, before she died. Did that mean the poison was already working on him? Fyren had boasted to her that it should have taken longer for her mother to die. She must have chewed on the cloth, he'd said. But she didn't know. Didn't know how much it took nor how long. And a big man like him, would it not take more poison? How could she tell how much of the poison was getting to him? Her mother had mentioned the headaches first. Surely she had more time, then. She had hoped to get the cloak from him without risking herself. But she must move soon. Even if she died in the process. Melisande gave the lord a somber nod and summoned the wine. There was yet another way. Theft.

CHAPTER 7 The raucous laughter of the knights floated through the hall and up the narrow wooden stairs. They were far too busy to notice her as she eased onto the balcony and slipped into the familiar darkness of her bed chamber. By going up early, she avoided any creaks in the stairs that might have drawn attention to her after the others took to their beds. For hours, she sat on the wooden floor, concealed by the bed, and ready to roll beneath it if she must. Her eyelids drooped. Her mind wandered into a reverie of a handsome, black-eyed

Norman, how it might be to have those sensuous lips touched to hers, returning to reality only when the hardness of the floor reminded her of her mission. She must have dozed, and woke, hearing the Norman lord, gruff from his pounding headache and now, she suspected, also too much wine, as he sought his bed. The man made the noise of ten small boys and a very large dog at play. A good time to move. She crept across the floor and hid behind her clothing chest. The ropes of his bed creaked. He groaned loudly and plopped around with great noise. She waited. Just as soon as she thought him quiet, he moved again. She was a patient person. She would not let the urgency of her mission betray her. The thin crescent of the moon rose and passed the double-arched window until it was beyond her view. She waited until all sounds in the hall below ceased, waited even longer, complimenting herself on her supreme patience. At last, she moved. As she pulled on the door, she caught in her hand the scrap of leather she had wedged in the latch, and released the latch slowly. The door moved smoothly and silently because of the lard she had dribbled onto its hinges. With its shutter closed, the lord's chamber was as dark as her own. The floor planks were too thick to groan under her rather insignificant weight, but she was not as familiar with this chamber as she was her own, and crept more carefully, across the chamber toward the wall where she expected the cloak to be hung. Calculating the distance to the bed, she reached out, and touched the bedpost. Ah. He had drawn the heavy draperies against the cold. Mayhap they would muffle sound, as well. Her fingers trailed lightly across the thick fabric, leading her safely to the next post, then along the side of the bed, to the wall. She touched the rough plaster, up, down, searching for the pegs and the garments hanging there. Perhaps she was too high. Again, she ran her hand across the surface. Well, then, too low. Frustrated, she swung her hands around in circles, feeling nothing. All right, she was too close to the bed. She reached to the left, found the heavy draperies, and carefully remeasured what she was sure was the proper distance from the bed. She stood still, reached out ahead, groped again, and found the pegs. Empty. All of them. Panic surged through her. Where now? Out, of course, as quickly as she might manage it. Melisande fumbled for the draperies as her guide, and turned to the-Thud. Her toe jammed against something hard, immovable. She froze. "Who's there?" Melisande had never been one to curse, and fortunately, had too little experience with it to do it right. She bit her lip. The bed-covers swished about. "Who's there?" With a yank and the sliding of rings against the wooden post, one side of the draperies flew open. Melisande hoped it was the other side. She dropped to her knees and slid herself beneath the bed. The bed had been built high off the floor, easy to get under, but just as easy to be found there. Two feet thunked hard against the floor. The Norman paced around the room, cursed in slurs as his feet found unexpected objects in their way, and quickly returned to his bed, grumbling. Something to remember. The man was a light sleeper, even when drunk. That presented her with another problem. How was she going to get out? She certainly could not wait for morning and crawl out after he was gone.

Panic rose in her throat and willed her to run screaming from the room. The demons screamed fear and destruction. But even the demons couldn't compete with the cold, and the rough, hard floor. Above her, the Norman rolled and tumbled, his heavy body pounding the mattress and ropes so hard, she thought he would break through. Well, mayhap she could stay beneath the bed for the night. If she did not allow herself to sleep. Or move. A cold draft wended its way beneath the bed and wrapped its chill around her. Melisande pulled herself into a tight ball and tugged the hem of her kirtle over her cold toes, and shifted minutely to straighten out the wrinkle in her kirtle that pressed into her hipbone. This would never do. She could never manage to stay here all night without giving herself away. Surely he would eventually drop into a deep sleep that would allow her to escape. Above her, the Norman roared out a pathetic moan and rolled over. A great bulge in the straining ropes seemed only inches from her face. She stiffened, dared not move for fear of touching the mattress. Who knew how easily he might awaken? He snored. A great, voluminously rattling snore. For the first time in her life, she could see the value of a snore. To keep her awake. Somewhere in the night, the noise ceased. She had not meant to sleep, only to wait until he was at last quiet, then slip away. But the sound of his movements on the bed, the thud of feet against the wooden floor startled her to alertness. The dread she felt every morning hit her suddenly. What if she had walked? What if the demons had come? Well, she was quite alive and unharmed, so there was not much chance of that. Perhaps God meant her to live, just long enough to save this hero of hers. Perhaps God-But God did not hear her prayers. She did not even know if God disdained to use her, even for His own purposes. She would have to do all this herself. The Norman lord splashed water onto his face and washed his hands in the basin left the night before. Two overly large feet padded across the room again and his garments fluttered in the motions of dressing. But she heard no jingle of mail, nor the scrape of a scabbard being buckled on. The hem of the purple cloak floated past the bedstead, mayhap had been laid on the bed itself. It hadn't occurred to her the night before that he might have been too drunk to find the pegs. Not until the Norman opened the door and walked out did she take a normal breath again. And not until she heard him on the steps did she scurry from beneath the bed to her own chamber. But then what? How could she get out without being seen? The servant she was supposed to be had no particular business in the lady's chamber if the chamber held no lady, but she did not want to go through the cavern. She didn't ever want to go there again. Then, there was nothing for it, but to leave through the door, blatantly, as if she had merely been about her duties. They would be going to matins, and mayhap would not see her. She hoped. *** "I tell you, someone was in the chamber." Melisande, cringing within, ordered composure to her body and indifference to her countenance as she poured wine into the Norman lord's drinking horn. Chrétien laughed, and helped himself to another rasher. "He is not used to sleeping alone," said Hugh, with a loud guffaw. "Did you see him?" Chrétien asked.

"It was too dark." the Norman lord replied. Impatience lingered in his frown. "Hear him, then?" "I am not sure what it was. But someone was there." "Ha. You imagined it, Alain. You were so deep into your cup, it was a wonder you did not drown." Hugh's raucous roar at Chrétien's jibe infected the others. The Norman lord feigned a glower that did not even fool her. It seemed to be the way of these Normans to behave so irreverently toward their lord, and it seemed to be his way to accept it of them. Fyren would have killed a man for such. Robert leaned into his cup of ale, with a wicked smile on his face. "Mayhap it was a maid that sought him out." "Aye, a maid." Chrétien rammed an elbow in Robert's ribs. The men again laughed. For the life of her, Melisande could not see what was so funny about that. "Nay," said Hugh. "It was his bride, come to see what she has missed." "Did she find it?" came a shout from the back. "Aye. That's why she left." The Normans and Saxons alike roared, slapped their great fists on the trestle tables, and pounded each other on the back. She did her best to hide her confusion and appear unconcerned about their odd banter. But whatever would it be that she was supposed to have found? Oh. But then, why would she have left? She had never been able to make much sense of what other people thought was funny. Rubbing at a smudge on the rim of his horn cup with the seam of his cloak, the Norman lord continued his ineffective scowling. The cloak! The poison, spread across the rim where he wiped! She froze with horror as he lifted the cup to his lips. Could it kill him? She didn't know. Melisande lunged with a scream, knocked the horn cup from his hand, across the table and to the floor. A dull crack. Red wine spread on the stone floor like dark blood. She raised her head slowly, slowly turned, gulped. All around her, men stared. Stared as if her wits had suddenly gone begging. "I am sorry, my lord. I slipped-- on something, I think. A bone, mayhap." The Norman's black eyebrows cocked at an absurdly curious and high angle. She rose and scurried around the trestle table, and bent to pick up the cup. "Please, I will find you another cup. This one is damaged." "It will do, Edyt." "Nay." She said it too quickly, too quickly snatched it from his reach. "I will wash it, and if it leaks, I will bring you another." Before he could stop her, she fled from the hall, to the wooden outbuilding that housed the kitchen and scullery. She scrubbed at the tainted rim with a rough cloth and sand, lathered the soft soap onto it, scrubbed again. Dare she trust it, even then? Surely, none of the poison could be left. Could it? Once again, she took the coarse cloth and scrubbed. Then she saw the crack in the yellow-grey horn. Relief flooded her. Now there could be no argument of replacing it. "Nelda," she called, "Hurry and find the lord another cup. This one will not do. It has a crack."

Nelda's eyes too showed the effect of her mad move. Then, with the look of the all-suffering servant, Nelda nodded. "The maple maser, Nelda. Surely it would do." Nelda would fix it all for her. And she'd best escape to some dark corner for a while. He would be safe a little longer, for all that she had made herself look the perfect simpleton. And if she couldn't manage to steal the cloak, she could at least pray for warmer weather so he wouldn't wear it as much. Except that God did not hear her prayers. *** The lord's chamber centered around a table of dark oak that was nearly as large as its curtained bed. On that table Alain stretched out an old parchment, scraped bare, on which he traced out a crude drawing of the Eden Valley that led up to Carlisle and the Solway Firth. He drew a square to indicate his castle and wiggling lines to represent the becks and rivers. More squares went down as symbols of other manor holdings, and tiny circles for the smaller holdings. "Think of it as the way God must view the world from the heavens," he said to his knights. "God would see the fells, too," Hugh objected. "And God would see the colors and shapes of things, too, but we cannot put all that down. It would only confuse us. But we all know the fells are in between the becks. I suppose we could mark where the peaks are, but that is not important. We want to know where we can go, and where our enemies might be." Robert scowled. "It is a good idea, Alain. But it isn't right. If it takes a day by horseback to go from here to here," he said as he traced out a route with his finger, "then it should take more time to go from here to here." And he drew another route with his fingers. "But it does not, it takes less time." Chrétien stopped to rub his fist over his chin. "But the first route is much harder, and the horses must go much slower. How can you tell, Alain, how far it is?" "If we had the time, I suppose we might measure it someday. But that is not my purpose. I propose only to guess. Merely by making marks on the parchment, we can plan our moves in advance, and mayhap see flaws in them before they happen." Alain removed small, flat stones of varying colors from a tiny leather pouch and tossed them onto the table. "The white ones will represent Rufus and the army he brings. Ours are the red stones, and the black ones are Malcolm's. Grey, for Anwealda and those allied with him." He placed red stones at each holding under his control. Malcolm's black stones he placed as a group to the northeast, representing Scotland, and Rufus' white ones near York. "Now, where is Anwealda?" "Up in the fells," said Gerard. "Aye, but where?" "It matters not if-- aye, I see your meaning. From wherever he is, he can strike, pull back, and hide, and we cannot be there soon enough to stop him. Yet if you knew where he hides--" "Aye, it is true," said Chrétien. "And if he can keep himself supplied with what he captures from us, he can continue his harassment. But if we can draw him into engagement more than once, we may be able to guess his location." Alain nodded, pleased. "If you were Anwealda, where would you strike next?" "Where we have already been," said Chrétien. "Where we think we are secure, but are not." "Anwealda's own holding," Gerard added.

"And therefore, we will surprise them by reinforcing the men and supplies we left there yesterday," said Thomas. Alain smiled, pleased they thought the same as he. "If we have outguessed him, we win again." Gerard leaned forward and placed a finger on the map between two becks, and Alain guessed he was imagining the fells between them. "Aye," said Gerard. "You are right. We must try to outguess him by noting where he appears, where he comes from. Where he goes." "But what next?" asked Wallis. "We cannot always outguess him." "It is true," said Alain. "But Rufus is close. We must keep harrying Anwealda until Rufus arrives." "You have heard news?" "Aye. Rufus comes. But he is weeks away. We must secure our conquests now." Alain moved back to the map. "This land, Anwealda's, you will take and hold, Hugh. Dougal's for you, Robert. Chrétien, Cyneric's lands, when Rufus is done with this campaign." "Alain, I have told you, I want no such fief." "Chrétien--" "You gave your word. I am content as I am." "You cannot spend your life as a mercenary." "It is of my choosing." It was true. He had promised. The Saxons, to a man, showed puzzled frowns. No doubt they wondered why the lord's second refused that which all men sought. But it was Chrétien's great pain, not his, and so it must be Chrétien who chose who should be told what, and when. When he had first seen the possibility of settling onto the land instead of wandering about according to the king's whim, he had also begun to hope for the same for his dear friend. But Chrétien still stung from his terrible loss. He would rather face a thousand armed knights alone than run such a risk again. Someday, it might be different. But not now. "Very well. There will be plenty of land for all." "If I may suggest, lord," said Gerard. "Do so." "The holdings of Anwealda and Dougal are central to this campaign, for Rufus cannot capture Carlisle without going through the Vale of Eden. But Cyneric's is out of the way. It could serve to harbor rebels, but as it guards the Aire Gap, it is a threat now. Wallis could hold it with little effort, for his holding abuts it. Thus, you may keep your second where he is most useful to you, here, and decisions about fiefs could be made later when it is more apparent what land there is to be divided." "I will think on it. But let us attend to today's affairs today. And tomorrow, Gerard, you will ride forth with Robert and Hugh to Anwealda's holding, and leave Hugh there with his men. You will harry the neighborhood for the knights, but see that the common folk are not terrorized." "Tomorrow may be too late, Alain," said Robert. "Let us ride today." "True. --Aye. Then, leave when you are ready." He watched the Saxon and Norman knights file out of the small chamber and listened to their clinking noises and boisterous banter as they hurried down the wooden stairs. They would be busy for the remainder of the day gathering the supplies and heading off to reinforce Anwealda's holding. And he would have a day to learn more about his own demesne.

He was disappointed, in a way. He had hoped they would be excited about his map. But they had merely thought it inaccurate. They all seemed to have clearer concepts in their heads than could ever be drawn on paper. The advantage of the illiterate mind, he supposed, was that it must commit so much more to memory. He trundled down the stairs after them, out of the hall. In the lower bailey, villeins hauled out carts to supply the new outpost. More villeins struggled with the great stone blocks being winched upward to their place on the curtain wall, while masons waited to set them in their bed of fresh mortar. Wooden scaffolding creaked with their movements. It galled him to see such an enormous effort put into an unacceptable site. He would change it if he could. A simple mound and moat with wooden tower and palisade would be better than this. The untenable holding to the north was of greater concern. He could build his new motte and bailey there. It could be done in a few weeks, and would provide greater security for Rufus. He resolved to discuss it with Chrétien. Alain's interest in mottes and baileys was soon distracted by the sight ahead of him of Edyt's braid as it swung at its tip, an accent to her brisk pace. On one hip she carried a willow basket with a great pile of linens as she made for the beck that rushed beside the castle. As she passed the bath house, he came up behind her. Quietly. "Edyt." Her arms flung into the air so suddenly that she dropped her basket. Smothering a smirk, he watched benignly as she retrieved linens from the grass and hastily shoved them back atop those that had not spilled. He should feel guilty for his trick, he supposed. "Aye, lord." "I would talk with you." "Aye, lord. I--I know the cup was precious to you, but it is cracked and I cannot fix it. If you wish to punish me,--" For a reply, he took her arm in his hand and led her into the dark coolness of the little stone bath house. Inside, he turned her to face him, and tried not to laugh at the wideness of her brilliant blue eyes. He lifted the basket from her hands, placed it on the low bench, and folded his arms. "Now, Edyt, what is it you are about?" "I go to take linens to the hall, lord." "I refer to that odd display this morning. What mischief is that, Edyt?" "None, lord, it was not malice, but merely a slip. A bone, I think. I utterly mislike them on the floor, you know." "A bone? Through your shoes?" "They are but soft leather, lord." "Aye, but would they not have protected you from a bone?" "Well, there was something, I am sure." "Indeed. But there was no bone, Edyt. I looked." "Then, mayhap it was merely a cramp in my foot. You may punish me, lord. I did not mean to break your cup." Alain's chuckle rumbled up from deep inside him. "I vow I am unaccustomed to having young maids assault my drinking cup, but I care naught about it, Edyt. But I would like to know your mischief." Her lips parted, as if awaiting a word that would not come.

Rosemary. The coolness of the bathhouse held her scent, the soft but pungent, piney scent of rosemary that always lingered after her. Here it permeated everything, as if this small stone building were especially hers. And he had seen her come from it at the first light of dawn that first morning. Did she sleep here? Why here? Why not the hall? The rosemary. Aye. It was a part of what had stirred him from his sleep the previous night. A mere whiff of it could bring intense arousal to his body. Alain crowded her closer to the cool stones behind her. "What were you doing in my chamber last night, Edyt?" His voice was a growl calculated to frighten a guilty maid free of her sins. "I, lord? I--I was not--" Now he knew it was her. The chamber had echoed of her, the scent, the feel, the essence. He had known it in both soul and body. Aye, in body. She drew him like a lodestone. Brought a violent ache, an awakening of his need. He stood close to her, and his hand touched the velvet smoothness of her hot cheek. So close to her, he drank in the aroma that was hers. "It was you," he said. "The rosemary. It clings to your hair. What were you doing there, Edyt?" "Nay, lord, it was not I. The rosemary-- the rosemary is in the rushes. I use it often." Rushes, indeed. She herself had told him Fyren never allowed rushes in the sleeping chambers for fear of fire. "You have not put rushes in my chamber, Edyt. But I smelled the rosemary there last night. What did you seek?" "Naught, I tell you. I--" The one hand wove itself through her hair above the loose yellow braid, and the other encompassed her at her waist. "It is in your skin, like the depths of a pine forest. No other has a scent like you, Edyt." Before she could object again, his lips descended and captured hers, feather soft and tingling. Passion slammed unexpectedly through him, like the blow of a hammer, so that he tightened his embrace suddenly, pressed her pliant body firmly to him. Her small hands touched him, burned an incendiary trail across his chest, moving outward as if she thought to encircle him with her arms, yet did not. With a moan, he deepened the kiss, found the willing recesses of her mouth and the tentative touch of her tongue to his. He felt her meld into him. Nothing had ever felt so right. Or was so wrong. No. It must not be. He'd done it again, done precisely what he had been determined he would not do. Agonized, he grasped her arms and stood back from her. He knew it for what it was, now. Not merely that she caught his fancy. There was a natural music that sang between them, something more perfect than either of them alone. If there were a world for them together, he knew he would choose it over this one. But there was not. His loyalty, devotion, his very being, were pledged to another. Rufus had betrothed him to a lady, sight unseen, and as he found her. And he had not even managed to find her. He could not have this girl. And he could no longer delay what must be done. He turned away and clasped his empty arms over his chest. "I must find you a husband," he said, and thought his voice sounded like feet crunching in gravel. "Nay!" He might at least face her. Again he turned. Her blue eyes were wide, round, and frightened.

"This cannot continue, Edyt. It is not good. There are no constraints, nothing to stop--. Something must be done. One of my knights, mayhap." "Nay, lord. I do not want a husband." "Not a Norman, then? A Saxon, mayhap. Or Gerard?" "Gerard is married, lord, and has a young daughter." "Then he shows you too much interest. Surely, there is another." "Nay, lord." "Why not? I did think every young maid sought the protection and security of a marriage. You could do well for yourself." "Nay, lord. I am-- imperfect." He felt the corners of his lips dance against his will, and the stiffness in his body ease. "If you say naught, no one will notice. How are you imperfect, Edyt?" "I-- I am a foundling. I have naught to bring to a marriage." "I will give you a dowry." "But a man would be a fool to marry one whose family is unknown. His children might be deformed, or simple, or mad. No one would want me, lord." "You do not know your family? I thought you said your mother managed the household before you." "Aye, well, she took me in at Lady Edyt's behest. Hence my name. Do not trouble yourself with my concerns, lord, I am happy as I am." "Happy? I have never seen a maid so grim. But think on it, Edyt. Surely there would be someone." "I must go, lord." The girl grabbed her basket and hurried out the door. For a moment, he stood in the darkness and watched her scurry across the bailey and down the hill to the gate. When he again stepped out into the sunshine, he saw Gerard, arms folded. Laughing. *** "Do not laugh at me, Gerard. It is not funny." "Aye, Edyt. But I think he is more likely to bed you than do away with you." "You do not know whereof you speak." "And I will not ask. I will keep my promise. But why not let me hide you if you are so afraid? I can find someone." "I cannot. Not yet. There's something I must do first." "Something more important than your life?" "Aye. Far more important. I want him to govern here. And I must see that he will be safe, first." "Edyt, he is a knight of great prowess and renown. He does not need a mere maid to keep him safe." "This time, he does. Once I have done this thing, I will let you hide me. But for now, you must keep your promise." The blond knight nodded, with soft sadness in his brown eyes, and gave her a reluctant smile. She wished she could tell him, but she couldn't. For so long, she had had no one but Gerard and Thomas. She could not bear what they would think of her when at last they learned what they protected. But she was selfish and she needed their caring. No one could understand the evil that was within her, nor the demons that haunted her. Not even Thomas knew of them.

The burden was hers alone. She would far rather have them all think her empty in the cockloft than to know the truth.

CHAPTER 8 Ah. He thought so. In the darkness of his chamber, Alain stood beside the narrow slit of a window as he watched an indistinct figure skirt the boundary of the bailey, clinging to the shadows of buildings, avoiding the bright light of the moon. First pausing, the figure then darted from the concealment of the kitchen through the door of Fyren’s bath house. In that fleeting moment, he spotted the silvered flash of pale yellow hair in a long rope of a braid. Edyt. None other. She surely did not bathe, so late at night. She slept there, he was sure. But why? Did she meet someone there? Alain threw the purple cloak about his shoulders and crept down the wooden stairs. The guard at the hall door cocked his head quizzically as Alain passed. Alain wondered if he had noticed the girl, or if she had hidden herself out somewhere else beyond the hall. With quiet steps he crossed the bailey to the chapel. He sat in the doorway and leaned against the weathered door, and tugged the cloak around him to wait out a long night. When the throbbing headache came upon him, he decided it must be from the awkward position in which he was forced to sleep. But he couldn’t let the opportunity pass. If she conspired against him, he needed to know. Or perhaps it was merely a lover and he overstepped his bounds. He shifted his shoulders and huddled back into the corner. He’d slept in worse circumstances many times, even, in fact had done so on the march north to Cumbria. Why should a headache be bedeviling him now? Yet it pounded as fiercely as if he had been hit by a hammer. Grumbling to himself, he shifted again, this time lying down in front of the stone threshold. He rubbed his fists against his eyes and closed them again. But he did not sleep. When dawn’s twilight etched the rim of the world, he saw movement at the bath house door. The girl stepped out, looking about, and skittered across the bailey to the kitchen. Tucked within the cradle of her arm was a rolled bundle, like a bedroll. He waited a few moments as the sky lightened, then ambled to the bath house. The odor of rosemary permeated the cool, damp air. But nothing else. No one else was there. But he could distinguish the corner where she had lain with her bedroll, for the stone flags were darkened with moisture everywhere else. He supposed someone could have slipped by him in the night, but he was quite sure he hadn’t slept. Yet why, when she could have the comfort of the hall, did the girl sleep alone in a cold, damp place such as this? Did nothing about this strange place make sense? God's grace and all the bloody saints, what sport was Rufus making of him? The one maid to haunt him with her presence, and the other with her absence? This castle, which was no castle at all, but a mockery of a monastery with a curtain wall? Fyren's sudden, unexplained death? Answers only brought more questions.

And none of it explained the pain that banged against his skull from the inside, as if it meant to beat its way out. He blinked away the fuzziness in his eyes and crossed the bailey as if nothing was wrong. *** The bell in the village church rang out, calling for vespers. Shortly, the evening meal would be served, for his little household manager was very predictable. She, not he, set the time for supper. He was in a pensive mood as he strolled down the stone steps and crossed the bailey to the hall, musing at the way the late sun turned all the walls to gold. Wondered how it would reflect on Edyt's yellow hair if it flowed free and waved in the breeze like a pennon. As he entered the hall, Alain stood aside and watched the bustle of servants who set up the evening meal. The pleasure of possession rushed through him as he watched preparations for supper. All the trestle tables were in place, with their linen cloths of sparkling white. Trenchers were being set out. On the dais, his place at center, with the wooden maser he had been given the morning before. He chuckled to himself, remembering that odd incident and Edyt's lame apology. Another thing that didn't make sense. A steady parade of maids and young men filed between the kitchen and the hall's side door. Could one of these girls be his missing bride? But the creature he imagined would be unlikely to have any such skills, nor would hardly toil in the scullery. All that, just to avoid a marriage? He had also observed girls in the village with the same skeptical eye, and with the same conclusion. He had even considered the young boys, wondering if the mousy lady might disguise herself as one of them, but he saw no likely candidates. All that he had really found was that even though his senses told him she was here, in his hall or his village, he was not so anxious to find his bride, after all. A commotion drew his attention back to the hall's door, where Gerard rushed in, still huffing from a hard ride, and, still in stride, doffed his helm and handed shield and sword to his squire. From the bailey came sounds of other mounted men pulling their war horses to a halt. He dashed down from the dais where he had been standing and met Gerard halfway from the door. "Something is up?" "Aye, lord. We arrived in time, or we would have found a slaughter. Instead, we caught Anwealda's men between us and the fort. A goodly number escaped, and we took no prisoners who lived, so we could not question any of them." "Did he have foot soldiers?" "Nay. I was surprised. Only knights. I left Hugh, along with most of the men and the supplies." "And the villeins? The carters?" "I left them as well, to hurry back with the news." Alain gave a thoughtful nod. Gerard seemed always to make the most prudent decision. A good knight. A good leader of men. Too good, perhaps. "I have been thinking, Gerard," he said as the two of them washed their hands with the bowl brought to them. "We need a stronger outpost there." "Aye. Anwealda was pampered by the Scots, being one of them. He needed no fortification against them. But we do." Alain waited for Chrétien and the other knights to finish their supper, listening to their descriptions of the battle at Anwealda's fort, assessing further strengths and weaknesses from their stories.

"So, Wallis, you agree that Anwealda's fort, as it is, is not of much value." "Aye, lord. We lost several men, and would have lost all of them, had we not come upon them when we did. Anwealda's knights were already within the gate, and very nearly succeeded in closing it on us." "Even then, we could have taken it," said Gerard, "but our losses would have been heavy." "Then all agree, the fort should be improved. Mayhap, even demolished and rebuilt." "Aye, eventually," said Chrétien, "but there is no time." "For stone work, aye. But one of the old kind, a motte and bailey, could be thrown up in a matter of weeks. The location is good, but the walls weak and too easily scaled. But a tall palisade would take little time." "But even weeks, Alain, do we have that?" "I know not. But we must do something to strengthen the position." "We could dig the moat, though I think it cannot go very deep before reaching bedrock," suggested Gerard. "Hugh has already thought of the moat, and the dirt would have to go somewhere, so why not also build a mound?" "And build a tower on the mound. Then if time permits, ring the wall with more towers." "Does Anwealda have no foot soldiers?" "He has them," said Wallis, "and he will use them when he sees fit." "Aye," replied Gerard, "but not as long as he must strike like a snake, for they move too slowly. A motte is a good idea, but all of Hugh's men, including his knights, will not be enough. He will need more villeins if he is to build a palisade." "Then send him some." "They will not want to go this time of year," said Thomas. "There is much with the land that needs to be done." "Then reward them. And any man who stays behind, if he will help with his neighbor's land while he is gone." "Reward?" "Aye. Mayhap a day off their servitude." The Saxon knights, with their pure blue eyes, stared at each other in disbelief. The Normans drank from their cups with bemused smiles curling on their lips. Thomas nearly stood in his anxiety. "But lord, if every one gave a day less, how would the demesne function?" "It is a time of sacrifice. We will sacrifice, too. As for the villeins, Thomas, none know better than they how much the poor peasants suffer in times of war. We risk our lives, but they risk even their families, and all they own. If we can hold back Anwealda and his men and give Rufus an uneventful pass through the Vale, they will suffer far less." The Saxon girl was watching him again, as solemn as she ever had been, her thoughts beyond discerning. What he would give to see a smile on her face. He could not think of her without also thinking of the unwilling bride, wishing instead she might be this fascinating girl. He had always assumed that the maid to whom Rufus had betrothed him had not much to offer. Neither beauty nor intelligence. Nor skills, save with the needle, as was the way among most ladies of class. Else, why had Rufus extracted such a strange promise from him? He had been willing enough, for the sake of having his own fief, but he had expected little. It was the price he paid, and in doing so, he met Rufus' need for a strong northern border.

She might be passably pretty. Even Rufus had assumed that, for he had memories of her beautiful mother from his own childhood. But none said as much. And it seemed to him she was more likely to be a timid little thing, thin, unglorious hair, with a tiny squeaky voice. That much did make sense. Such a creature would run and hide easily, rather than stand to fight. And men felt obliged to protect such a meek and fragile one, who surely could not defend herself. Aye, that could explain Rufus' command that he take the girl as he found her. Somewhat undesirable, but bringing great lands, wealth, and power with her wedding. Yet at her behest her knights willingly followed him, while bidding him to leave the girl alone and cease searching for her. Then there was this vibrant maid to whom all these Saxons deferred without even thinking. Deferred to her, to this mere slip of a foundling. Alain rubbed his hand over his chin and his scratchy beard. Aye, they did. It was Edyt who ran this hall, and mayhap it was not the girl's connection to the lady that gave her such power. Once again he eyed the enigmatic Edyt, so much like, and yet so different from, most of the others of the hall. Mayhap there was a contender for the missing bride, after all. *** Yesterday, the cat had come to her where she stood in the bailey, rubbed its great furry, red body against her legs, and she had bent to pick it up. He had wondered then if the cat sought her out because its mistress was missing. Today, he watched again from the slit window in his chamber, as King Rufus, King of All the Upper and Lower Bailey, strode purposefully across the bailey, straight for her, ignoring all comers. Carters, wagons, even brave knights moved out of the cat's way and let it pass. After the animal had taken several rubbing passes against her legs, she reached down for the cat. She flopped the big fellow over on its back in her arms, and scratched distractedly at the exposed belly. The cat leaned back its head to bare its throat, which she also obligingly scratched. Many people took well to cats. It proved nothing. Any more than the fact that she spoke to everyone in passing, or that she treated the hall as if it were her own. All those had rational explanations. And all he really had was a nimble imagination. And over-active gonads. But what if she were his missing Melisande? She had come to know him in these few days, and seemed to have no distaste for him. Wary and skittish she was, it was true. But he had felt real passion in her with that kiss. Then why would she keep up this facade if she was the lady in hiding? Because she wanted something. Something she must have before disappearing into Scotland beyond his reach. What? His hand closed around the small Celtic ring that hung on the twisted cord about his neck. He caught the tip of his smallest finger in it, yet it would not pass even beyond his fingernail. The ring. Could that be the reason she had invaded his chamber? To find the ring? Surely it was not worth so very much. Not nearly as much as the ring he had brought to place on his bride's finger. Might it hold a hidden message? He held it up to the light and searched inside the band, but saw only the pure, smooth gold surface. Outside, the interlaced pattern continued around the surface without variation. If some message lay within its design, he could not tell it. The purple cloak. The girl had a covert obsession with it. For all that she professed a distaste for it, he had seen her eyes almost feast on its magnificence. Yet, she loathed it. Two people have died in it.

How did she know? It was said only the Lady Melisande herself had been with Fyren in the end. Ordinary gossip could account for that. I– fold things. An entire chest of perfectly folded garments sat in the lady's chamber, save those few doffed and thrown in, in haste. But Melisande had no personal servant. So, had the lady who neatly folds things left in a hurry, leaving everything she valued behind, in order to appear to be a servant? Aye, if Edyt was Melisande, mayhap she wanted the cloak, and disguised her truer feeling. But why? It had a weighty feel to it, and he had assumed that to be the result of the marvelous embroidery with gold and silver thread. But might it hide something else of even greater value? Come now, he would have noticed. As he had noticed her covetous, loathing gaze on it. Foundling? It was a plausible explanation for a girl who had no apparent family, yet had position. And unusually convenient. He recalled the cracks in Edyt's demeanor, that occasional flash of defiance few servants would dare to show. True, he had also seen it in Thomas and Gerard, but that was a different case. But the girl enchanted him. Might she not be just the sort of wife he had always hoped to have? Might he hope, or was he merely fooling himself? He had always hoped for a wife of strong character, one such as Chrétien's wife, Heloise, had been. A wife that Chrétien had so loved and respected that after her death he would not take another. Nor land, nor fief, nor anything else that smacked of permanence. Unlike Chrétien, Alain was not so scarred in his soul that he could not run such a risk. But Chrétien's suffering had taught him also to be wary. He wanted what Chrétien had once had, but he also knew its rarity. Such love carried a high price. Mayhap that was why so few people recognized its existence. Aye, that was it. She reminded him of Chrétien's Heloise, a lady who had known more than how to push a needle through cloth. Such a lady might be more common in this wild north land where everyone must do his part. Still not enough to go on. And why? It appeared that everything the girl did as Edyt was a sham. Not simply the masquerade, but the manipulations to gain control again. Worse, she retained control over the people themselves, more than he had. He could be sitting in the middle of a very big trap, and she the cheese. Mayhap he was not the hunter and she the prey, but exactly the opposite. If so, he was the biggest fool of all. The more he thought of it, the more his frustration grew. He turned the wooden maser around in his hands, studying it, not liking the direction his thoughts were taking. It was about time to get the girl off his mind. He wondered how Thomas was doing with his recruitment, and headed down the wooden stairs to join the gathering crowd. Ahead of him, he caught glimpses of the silver-haired man as he walked with Chrétien and Gerard down the dirt lane in the village, summoning villein and cotter to assemble within the castle walls. Beyond, he could see men leaving their fields as wives and sons carried the news to them. How would it go if he did not command them, but gave incentive, instead? Would they follow their new lord if he did not lay lash to their backs? Or would he find that the old way was the only way?

Once in the lower bailey, he stood aside as the steward addressed the crowd. Thomas was a pleasant-mannered man. His silvery hair raised at one side of his balding pate like a flag in the stiff wind. Thomas spoke to them as men, rather than the unfree that they were. He told them of the coming conflict, reminded them that those such as they always suffered the most from war. And he told them the building of the motte and bailey at Anwealda's holding would bring them more safety by giving Rufus peaceful access through the Vale. "But," he said, "the lord does not wish to force such service on anyone. He offers instead, a day's relief in your service to the lord, one for each sennight you give. Some must go to provide labor for the castle, but others will be given relief for helping their neighbors who are gone." Thomas paused, and let the odd proposal sink in. First there was silence, then a low buzz began, that gained in strength, yet did not become intelligible. "Who will go by his own choice?" he asked. None stirred from the crowd. Suspicious eyes fell on Thomas, then their new lord. What did they think of it? Thomas held great respect among the common folk. But their lord did not. "Think of your lands, your crops ripped from the ground, your wives and children going hungry for their lack. Your lord wishes to protect you. But he needs your help to do it." The mumble ebbed and flowed, but still none stepped forward. Alain's gaze slanted sideways to observe Gerard standing beside Edyt, his arms folded and a heavy frown across his face. She spoke a few words, her mouth hardly moving. Neither looked at the other. Without so much as a nod, Gerard moved away, as if he merely sought a better place to view the assembly. He then stood next to the tanner, who stood beside the smith. He also spoke no more than a few words. The tanner nodded, returned to watch the steward who called for the aid of the village. Then he gave the knight a pleasant nod and moved off. As did the smith. Alain watched the word spread through the crowd. Now, one by one, men stepped forth to volunteer their service. Clever. If he had not been watching at the very minute she spoke, he would not have made the connection. Mayhap it was a mere suggestion that she had made. Clearly something she had said had this effect. Mayhap, as he had originally suspected, Edyt had close ties to the lady, who was hidden somewhere within the village, or close by. Or-Again, Alain decided not to question the suspicious behavior, for it would merely put them on their guard. And, with the press of other problems, their guard did appear to be slipping. He would keep watching. Satisfied that Thomas would have sufficient men to build the motte, Alain moved away from the crowd. Chrétien joined him. "What think you, Chrétien?" "There will be enough. But I worried at first." "I value your concern. But did you not notice anything else?" "It seemed odd, I thought, as if they suddenly changed their minds, all of a piece." "I thought the same. Our lady may be amongst them. Mayhap her word changed their minds." "You have a thought who?" "I have a suspicion. Mayhap, we have but to watch."

"Aye. Whoever she is, she is an odd sort, Alain." "Mayhap." "Or we do not know what moves her, and this makes her seem odd." Alain smiled. "In that way, everyone here seems odd. Do you not agree?" "And so you will not tell me where your suspicion falls?" "Let us see instead if yours will fall in the same place." Chrétien grinned back. Evidently he had his own unspoken suspicions. *** "I suppose we shall manage," said Thomas, his brow folded in a deep fret. "But it will be very hard to keep track of the lord days owed to the manor, if each villein serves differently." Alain regarded the silver-haired knight who stood beside him as they surveyed the loading of carts in the bailey. He never bragged about his abilities to read and figure, but he was secretly proud of it, and understood, as an uneducated man could not, just how useful it was. For all that Thomas might know in his head, or keep count on his tally sticks, he could not compare with what a man might keep on parchment. "Is it true you do not read, Thomas? Nor keep accounts?" "Nay." The knight’s pale grey eyes narrowed as he turned back to watch the carters. "Edyt keeps the tallies." "A maid? How is that so?" Thomas would not be caught in that trap. The man smiled triumphantly. "She was the Lady Edyt's most apt pupil. The lady was proud of her namesake." Alain grumbled a grudging thanks and left to find the girl. Since he had promised relief for his villeins, he'd best find out what it was going to cost him. Thomas might think it beyond manageable. But Fyren had done some unusual things, not all of which needed to continue. He would see what Edyt had to say about that, as well, giving him another opportunity to probe her secrets. The idea couldn't seem to leave his head. Could he not pry from her the cause of her distress? If it was distress, and not instead very skillful maneuvering. This time, he would resolve it. He found her with a broom, sweeping the floor of the great hall, in preparation for the spreading of fresh rushes. He smiled. He had no quarrel with her management, and had not seen another hall kept so clean. A sharp catch in his throat brought him back to his problem. "A word with you, Edyt." Without a word, she set aside the broom, leaving a small pile of debris from the rushes that had already been removed. "In my chamber." She followed him up the stairs in her usual silent fashion. He closed the door behind her. The wariness in her eyes increased. Perhaps he should put her at ease first. "Have you ever seen a map, Edyt?" "Nay." Alain rolled out the crude drawing he had made, and pointed out to her the landmarks he had found significant. "But it is not correct," she protested. "I know that, as I have only guessed. But in what way?" "You have placed Cyneric's holding too far to the east. It is to be found in the Mallerstang Common which you have not placed on the map." Alain stared at her, astonished. "You can read?"

Her face paled. "Aye," she stammered. "I know a little Latin, as well. Is there something wrong with that?" "It is uncommon, save for ladies of great families. How do you come to know?" A light pink flush formed on her cheeks. "I learned from the Lady Edyt. Some others did, as well, but most did not want to learn. She found me useful for the household accounts, and for writing letters and other things." "Does not Thomas do those things?" "He does not read. So it falls to me." "You are an unusual woman, Edyt. I cannot help but wonder if you are more than you seem." "Nay," she said, and her face took on that carefully arranged mask that told him her thoughts were something different from her words. But pursuit would only bring more denial. "Then, come and help me with them. If we are to shortchange ourselves on the day service of almost forty villeins, we must know what it means." "If you will let me get my tallies, lord, then it can be done with greater speed." "Pour me some wine from the jug before you leave." Silently she reached for the jug and leaned over the table as she poured into the maser. He watched the delicate lines of her slender hands, the left one pouring while the right steadied the maser. The right hand, directly before his eyes. And the slender band of white skin around its middle finger. Where a ring should be. Like a lightning stroke, Alain lurched and seized her hand. She screamed, jerked against his grip. He held fast. With a yank, he broke the cord about his neck that held the Celtic ring, and jammed the golden band onto her finger. "A fit. Very clever, lady, to hide beneath my very nose." "No, please. I--" "You will deny it now? I think not. For whatever reason you have chosen this deception, the game is over. I will have no more lies from you." "No! You are mistaken, lord." "I am not. Do you deny this finger held a ring? And is this not it? Why would you wear a ring if you are no more than a servant? Oh, nay, I am satisfied. I have watched you too closely. I know not your scheme, but if you mean to sell us out to the Scots, you will fail. It is the end, Melisande. You shall not escape now." Melisande thrust both arms inward, upward against the grip of his thumbs, and sprang free. She pounced for the door, sped along the balcony to the stairs as Alain closed in behind her. He vaulted over the railing to the floor below, and blocked the foot of the stairs, arms spread rail to rail. Melisande glanced back to the balcony above, then to at him. Alain held out his hand. "You have only a trap behind you. You cannot escape. Come, Melisande." "Nay." "Come or I will force you." She shook her head. From the corner of his eye, Alain saw the Saxons gather, poised to draw their swords. "Is it war you want, Melisande? For if you do, you shall have it. Look at them. One word from you and they will draw arms. Look at the Normans. They are equally ready. Is that what you want?" Alain slid one foot onto the first step. His arms spread across from one bannister to the other.

Melisande closed her eyes, as if to shut it out. But she was too practical a maid to pretend it would go away so easily. She shook her head slowly. She did not quite flinch when he took her hand. "By God, you will not hurt her!" Gerard's voice bellowed with apprehension. "Use your head, Gerard. She is of no use to me in that way. I do not harm women. But we will wed, and now. Chrétien, find the ring I brought. Robert, summon the priest. If he is not to the chapel immediately, we start without him." Before he could shift farther toward the paired doors with his prize, Wallis stepped before them beside Gerard, legs spread wide, hand on the sword hilt. His eyes gleamed with challenge. "As they are clearly yours, Melisande, you tell them." Her blue eyes copied the resigned set of her mouth. "I want no fight, Wallis. Gerard, you gave your word. Live by it." "Good girl." The Saxons sagged and stepped aside. Alain clenched his teeth and took the girl by the wrist, tamping down the instinct to tighten the grip. But this time she would not catch him off guard. The yellow-haired Saxon girl squared her shoulders, and he saw for the first time how much her humble garments had hidden her noble carriage. And beneath her carefully contrived mask of resignation, she was also the most frightened maiden he had ever seen.

CHAPTER 9 As if it were something he did every day, he led his bride to the steps of the chapel. She looked straight ahead, with her head carried high. Chrétien hurried along at his lord's side, Chrétien, the cautious, the peacemaker, whose heart was soft and tender, who had lost, but still cherished his only love. "Alain, surely you do not need to bully her." Norman knights strode behind and before, blocking Saxons. Alain frowned, but it could be no other way. The castle could not be secure without this marriage. He dared not let her escape. "You cannot force me to marry you," she said, and her voice trembled with the words. "You think I cannot? You have already forgotten the lesson learned just moments ago? Oh, yes, lady, I can force you. But that will make of this marriage a bloodbath, for my men will fight as surely as yours. You choose, Melisande." Alain fixed hard eyes on her, not daring to let her believe she had any alternative. With his hand still secure about her wrist, he took the ring Chrétien held forth. "Who will give this bride away, as she has no parents?" His eyes scanned the crowd of Saxons. "Thomas." "Nay, lord, I beg you," said the man. "Lady? You may choose." "Nay." "Then I say it shall be Thomas." Thomas's silver hair flopped down over his eyes as he lowered his gaze to the ground. Then his anguished face turned to her. "Forgive me, lady." "Say the words, Lady Melisande."

"Have done with it, Thomas. The fault is not yours." His head bowed as if defeated, Thomas stepped forward, took her hand, and with a reassuring pat, placed it in the hand of her antagonist. He fell back then, yet still stood behind her. One word from her, and Thomas too would die defending her. And that was why she acquiesced. Because she loved them. He admired her more than she could know. Alain said his vows calmly, then with his other hand turned her face back to meet his gaze. He did not want her to hate him. Nor could he understand what drove her to such fear. Was it conspiracy? The girl lowered her head, her chin nearly touching her chest. Her eyes pinched closed as he slipped the ring over the tip of each finger in succession in the ancient ritual, before sliding it onto its proper place. Again he lifted her face so she must look at him. "Say the words, Melisande," he said softly. Her mouth opened, but nothing came forth. "Look about you, lady. Do you want their blood spilled? Then say the words." "--With all my worldly goods I thee endow--." The remainder was lost in an indistinguishable whisper. But he was sure they were said. Satisfied, he called to Father Hardouin who led them into the small chapel, now aromatic with new herbs and rushes. He did not have to tell her to kneel, for she did it of her own accord. Her lips moved as if in a silent prayer as the priest laid his blessing on them. She stood again at his command. Alain drew his bride into his arms, brought his lips down on hers, but found nothing of response from her. He released his hold, dropped his arms to his side. "You liked me well enough before." "I like you not at all, now." What did she expect of him? He had done no more than what he had intended from the beginning. Nothing beyond what the king had commanded of him. "Then, why did you not leave before now?" "There is no place to go." They turned to walk side by side out the chapel door. Silence filled the bailey and its crowd of Saxons. "Surely you do not expect me to believe your friends in Strathclyde would not shelter you." "You are mistaken, lord. I have no friends in Strathclyde." "Not Anwealda? Not Dougal?" "I have never trafficked with them." "It appears to me you have." "Believe what you will. I care not." "As you have not persuaded me otherwise, I have little choice. But know this, Melisande. I will not tolerate a betrayal. You are my bride. I will have your loyalty." Her face looked flat, but her jaw was tight. "You have forgotten your own words, lord. My loyalty is not something you can command." "Then I will settle for obedience." "And if you do not get it, what may I expect?" "What do you expect?" "You are a Norman, after all." "And if you are wise, you will not forget it. Give me your hand, Lady Melisande."

She held out her hand, long fingers curling in a graceful, natural arc. Her trembling had passed, replaced by a puzzling, distant poise. Her face seemed carved in ice, her body no more than limbs that responded with all the plodding of a donkey in a weary pack train. But he took the hand and wrapped his own huge one around it, realizing as he did so just how easily he could crush her delicate bones in his grip. With all the ire she did provoke in him, he would have to exercise caution to keep from hurting her. He placed his other hand atop hers, for he meant to reassure her, but she stiffened at the second touch. It was not so very much to ask, -and she did ask, in her own way. He dropped the second hand away. But she accepted his lead in returning to the hall. Chrétien stood back from his lord's side, his brow furrowed in concern that brought Alain another pang of guilt. Mayhap he could be a bit gentler to the girl. He had accomplished his goal. There was, after all, the remainder of their lives together which could easily be turned from bliss to nightmare. And he liked her. From the beginning, he had liked her. Wanted her, if he would be truthful about it. Tonight then, after they were alone, he would try to make peace with her. "Chrétien, see if someone might put together some sort of wedding supper," he said. The girl's lips drew into a tight, grim line. She had never smiled, to his knowledge, but now her bleak face made her previous solemnity appear almost joyous. "Aye," said Chrétien, and his face lightened. "Mayhap it is nearly done, for the sun begins to set. And might the lady be allowed to change into more suitable garments for the occasion?" Before he could answer, Melisande broke her silence. "You are kind, Chrétien, but I have no wish to dignify this occasion with finery. Nor do I care to make mockery of an ordinary meal, to pretend it is a feast." Alain felt his jaw tighten and tension invaded his arms all the way down to his fists. He ordered himself to ease the grip on her small hand. "So be it, then. There will be but ordinary meal this night. Proceed with it, Chrétien." "It is my duty," said Melisande, and she tugged against the hold he had. "Yours no more. You are no servant in your husband's household. "Am I not? All know what wives of Normans are used for. I would rather perform a useful function." "It is the function of all wives, lady, not merely those of Normans. And it is as vital a function as any can be. But if you wish to perform menial work, then so be it. Go." She gave a mocking curtsy, stiff with rage, and fled. The yellow braid bobbed about as she ran to the wooden outbuilding. "Alain, could you not be easier on the girl? For all her bravura, she is sorely afraid." "I know. I would rather not frighten her. But her rebellion is dangerous, for others follow her too easily. That is why I thought to let her return to something familiar for a while. But put a guard at the bolt hole, and be sure none let her slip out the gate or sally port." "Why not just put a man to follow her about?" "I would rather be less obvious. You were right to begin with, I have bullied her. Why do you question me for easing up?" "You need not be so angry, Alain. This is more your making than mine." Irritation flared. "And I, like you, seek only to carry out Rufus' commands. Now, begone, and do as I ask."

As the man walk away with a certain stiffness, Alain regretted his sudden and infantile temper. It was unlike him to fall prey to frustration so easily. As unlike his as was that damnable headache and the occasional odd tremor in his hand. And the way his vision blurred. He had been too harsh with her. Chrétien knew it, and merely spoke of what he saw. It was guilt that motivated his bad humor. *** "My lady, are you all right?" Nelda ran to her as soon as she saw Melisande released from her lord's clutch. "Aye. He has not harmed me, Nelda. He merely seeks to secure his hold on this land. You know that. But find me something to do. I vow I cannot think for myself, just yet." "Aye, lady, but the bread is done, and the ox already roasted to a fine turn. Only the hall still needs attention. I am trying to do my best without you, but I have grown accustomed to your help. And now I must learn to do without it again." "Why? I am still the same." "I do not think the lord will allow it, lady." "Women are servants of men, Nelda. It is merely that the higher born must serve them differently, but they will always debase us in that way. I should far rather cook and clean." "We all must have our place, lady. And the men give us their protection." "Some do, sometimes. But none can be trusted to protect when it is most needed." Nelda sighed. "It will be all right, lady. He is not like your father." Of course he was not. Melisande clamped her teeth tightly and hurried off to the hall to see that all was properly set. The servants scurried about, gave her weak, fleeting smiles, then looked away and pretended concentration on their tasks. Truth to tell, she was sure that most of them had no real sympathy for her avoidance of the marriage to the Norman. Marriage was expected of her, and it would bring them more security. How could they know, when she had not shared her secrets with anyone? She supposed, in a way, the loyalty they had given her, with no knowledge of why she asked it of them, was a special kind of tribute. But they were glad, nevertheless, in their hearts. Like Nelda, they believed she merely needed to get used to the idea of marriage and all it entailed. She wished they were right. But this time, they were not. Now and then, one of the maids would stop, rest a hand lightly on her shoulder. She would nod and study the stone floor, for she could not meet her eyes nor find even a hint of a smile. Then the girl would go on about her tasks. Some of the men did as well. None of them had ever touched her before, save possibly as an infant. A frightening ache grew inside her. She began to jerk with each touch, rather than to graciously accept their offering. "Melisande." He had certainly grown used to her name quickly enough. She raised her head but did not look at him. The edge of her lower lip was beginning to feel worn and raw. "Melisande, you belong on the dais." "I must finish with the linens first." "Then the trenchers and goblets?" "Aye, of course." "Very well. After that, the task goes to others." She supposed she should feel grateful. Or should she feel ungrateful, that he so easily turned her into servant? She confused herself with her roundabout thinking. She was the one who made

herself a servant. He merely sought to placate her. She did not want to be placated. She wanted to fight. Or flee. She smoothed her carefully pressed linens onto the table, arranging their fold lines to be perfectly square with the tables' sides. The trenchers were laid out and goblets set about according to their owners. With each chore, she kept her guarded gaze from catching his eye. How odd it was. Before this horrible day, without realizing it, she had actually begun to think of him as some sort of shining angel sent from Heaven. And she, having heard of his coming, had chosen him to rescue her people, though not herself. Yet despite herself, she had hoped. He could not. In the end, he could only do as Normans, as all men, always did, and slay the one who betrayed them. Aye, she had hoped. Somewhere in her distorted mind, in the part where demons did not frolic, hope had taken hold. If she had realized it, she would have quashed it. Hope only led to worse disappointment. Like prayers, it would not be fulfilled. Nothing else remained to do. She did not even sigh as she ascended to the dais to take her place beside the man who would soon take her to his bed, and after that, put an end to her life. Mayhap, he would be swift about it. She sat in the high-backed chair that had once been her mother's, beside the Norman in the chair where Fyren had once sat. Her eyes blurred, yet she did not cry. She had been past crying for years, her tears long dried up from fear and pain. The handsome Norman lord trimmed off slender, juicy slices of beef from the roast he had been given, and laid them before her. She had always loved beef, and this ox had been beautifully done. But she could not eat. She shook her head. "Eat, Melisande." "Thank you, I am not hungry." "A little bit." "Nay." "Something else, perhaps? The pheasant?" "Nay." "A turnip, or bread?" She felt as if her throat were no longer joined to her stomach, or had clamped shut and would not let anything in. "Thank you. I am not used to sitting." "That will pass quickly. But more so if you begin now." But she could not. She prayed the meal would quickly pass, instead. Yet it seemed to take half the night. God did not answer her prayers, not even the little ones. The Norman soon left her to her misery and turned his attention to the men who sat near him. Their subdued voices left anguished silences, spaced by odd, out-of-place subjects. When the silences grew too long, he returned his attention to her. "Mayhap the wine will help your digestion," he suggested, and poured some in the maple maser which he offered to her. She took a sip, gave a small nod. "A little more, Melisande. To ease your fears." "And to ease his path," said a Norman toward the end of the table. The Norman lord glared the man down. The others carefully studied the remaining contents of their cups. "Alain, mayhap she would like to go to her chamber," said Chrétien.

She looked at the man, suddenly realizing she had worried at her lower lip until it bled. "Aye," said the Norman lord. "If you will see her there, I will come shortly." Gratefully, Melisande rose. She walked past Thomas, who stared down at his trencher. Gerard, who knew nothing of the cause of her distress, nevertheless caught her gaze with the steadfast one of his own. She tried to arrange a smile on her face for him. But she had long since forgotten how that was done, and instead bit her lip. "My lady," said Chrétien, as they ascended the steps, "do not be so afraid. He is not a bad man. He will not hurt you. And I have heard it said by many a lass, he is more than-- kind." "I care not what his conquests have to say about him, Chrétien. But you are kind, and I thank you. I only wish to be alone for a little while, now." "Aye, of course. I could find a woman to help you." "I need no help." He gave her a helpless smile and returned to the dais. As she closed the door behind her, her heart began to race. The demons returned. Like fierce, gusty winds, they flew about within her. Flee! You must flee! Nay! Let him come, and kill him in his sleep! He will not sleep before he kills you! Flee! She hated them. They captured her fears, twisted them, conquered her with them. There was nothing she could do. And she could not kill him, not even if she hated him. And she did not hate him. It was not his fault that she had harbored secret desires for him, had believed him capable of her salvation, something no man could do. He was just a man. Just a man, after all. But you can flee! Save yourself! Why? So you will still have someone to torment? Nay! Save yourself while there is still time! Hurry! He comes soon! Her heart sped within her chest at the thought, knowing her death was imminent. But there was no place to go. Hide in the caverns! Then you can worry about where to go! She had married him. Would that not be enough to secure his holding? Aye, she must flee. Now. The caverns. She might even hide there for a while. None knew them as well as she did. If only she had eaten supper. But that could not be changed now. She sped to the corner where the hidden panel was, and shoved it aside, then crawled through the opening. Before her, the twenty-seven stone steps disappeared into the maw of darkness. Her small candle flickered with each step downward. Freedom? There was none. She only wished to cheat death until she could find a better way of dealing with it. *** "She's gone. By Christ's Blood, she's gone!" Below him, still on the dais, his knights gaped up at him. Chrétien dashed up the wooden stairs ahead of Gerard, Thomas, and Robert. They too stared at the empty chamber. Alain surveyed again the walls, floors, even the bed, for the smallest clue, but found naught. "There's another way out. Thomas, what is it?" "I truly do not know, lord. The lord Fyren never shared such knowledge." "But there is a way." "Aye, the bolt hole."

"Beside that. There's-- aye, the bolt hole. Chrétien, watch this chamber." Had she gotten by his man, somehow? Alain raced down the staircase, through the hall and out to the new tower. He raced through the tower's lowest floor with the rush torch he had grabbed on his way through the hall, until he reached the odd little passage the girl as Edyt had shown him. Once there, he threw aside the barrels that hid it and stooped to pass through. Within the cavern, he slowed, following the gravelly floor until he reached the little chamber where the passage leveled. He held the torch high to scan about. His heart sank. CHAPTER 10 Little corridors, pits and recessions branched out, dipped and rose all around him, in all directions. A labyrinth. Alain recalled why he had not investigated the bolt hole further. It was impossible. Almost beyond comprehension. The shaft that appeared to be most used wound downward. He walked a little way in that direction. Soon it too, narrowed, became too small for anyone to pass. He should have asked her that day to show him the rest of the way out. Now she could be long gone, and he could do nothing but send out his knights about the countryside, where every villein who knew her would shelter her. His hope sank. With a defeated sigh he turned back. His nose wrinkled. A smell half-remembered. The wick of a freshly snuffed candle. Tiny particles of sand fell on his arm, and he lifted the torch. Above him a foot dangled below a coarse wool garment. All of a motion, he dropped the torch and scrambled up the rock face after her. If she reached the narrow slit above her before him, all was lost. His large body would never go through that hole. He lunged, caught the foot. A shriek echoed through the cavern. "Give over, lady. You will only hurt yourself." She grappled for the rock above her, and cried out as he pulled her down. He latched both hands onto her arms and pressed her hard against the sloping rock wall with his body. "You struggle in vain, lady. You are my wife. It was decreed by Rufus, and naught will change that." He gave her no chance to reply or resist, and hauled her along behind him up the incline of the passage. At its top, he shoved her through the low hole, still holding her wrist tightly. Once outside the tower, Alain pitched her over his shoulder, ignoring her cries, carrying her as he would a sack of corn across the bailey, through the hall. Up the wooden stairs, and through the open door to her chamber. To the bed, where he flung her down like that same sack of corn. Melisande scrambled away and drew herself up tightly against the headboard, her eyes huge and round, while she pushed herself sideways toward the bed's opposite side. "Now, lady, what is it to be? A fight? You cannot win." "No, please!" She scooted off the far side of the bed, flung herself against the wall. "Please!" "Please? Just what is it you intend? Do you think I shall just step aside and allow you to make such a fool of me?" "I didn't mean--"

Her glance flew from side to side, seeking an opening where there was none. Alain caught her again, this time about the waist. She screamed, her voice like the high squeal of a rabbit set upon by hounds, and thrashed as he fought to keep his hold. "No!" she cried, and her words trembled as she writhed against his grip, struggling, frantic. Christ's Blood, what terrified her so? He had never meant it to be like this. Somehow, he had to bring her back to her senses. He tightened his hold about her waist and arms, but the more he tried to subdue her, the more terrified she became. Desperate, he threw her down to the bed, landed on top of her. "Be calm, Melisande. I tell you, calm down. There is not reason to-- Melisande, I will not hurt you, do you not understand?" She did not. She had stopped making words. Now only incoherent squeals and gasps, like a dying rabbit, came forth. She no longer fought, merely shook in his arms. This was wrong. As wrong as anything he had ever done. He had meant only to subdue her, but the harder he tried, the worse it got. He lowered his voice. "Melisande, Melisande, listen to me. Can you not hear me? I do not want to hurt you." Her body trembled, and her only sounds were whimpers. Alain rose away from the bed, stood, stared helplessly at the shaking girl before him. She rolled to the side and drew herself into a tight ball, the way a turtle shrank into its shell. Expelling the long breath he had held, he lifted the down quilt that had been kicked aside and tucked it in around her. He let himself out through the door between the two chambers. By God's Sweet Breath, what was this? Was the girl mad? No, she was not mad, only terrified. And Chrétien was right. He had done nothing but bully her. She must have thought he was going to rape her. Oh, of course, he knew a husband could not rape his wife, not under either common or king's law. But he doubted it would feel any different to her. He had to get out of there, out of these chambers, go where he could think more clearly. Out the door, across the balcony, down the stairs. Below, the knights all sat around on benches not yet put away, all considering the floor as if something compelling lay there. All except Gerard, whose blazing brown eyes threatened a fight to the death. Alain only shook his head. "She is not harmed, Gerard. Only frightened. Too frightened for-anything. You may go to see her, if you think it will help." But Thomas took Gerard's arm before the man could dash up the stairs. "I will send a woman. Nelda will go." Gerard's reply gritted through his teeth. "By Christ's Blood, de Crency, I am bound to my vow only while she lives. Should she die, now or ever, you will face me. That I owe myself." There was no point in the argument. Were he in Gerard's place, he would do the same. But he had never thought he would be in this position. He threw the purple cloak over his shoulders and trudged out into the night. A soft drizzle had begun to fall, and the night seemed oddly warmer for it. Chrétien came up beside him as he walked, silent, beside him. Alain scanned over all the things he had missed this day because of a discovery he almost wished he had not made. The progress of the curtain wall, and that of the new tower. The open floor from which Jean Nouel had fallen to his death was now finished. This place, all he had ever wanted, seemed suddenly meaningless.

Alain mounted the stone steps to walk along the completed portion of the curtain wall. He usually liked coming here, to see the hawks at dawn, the larks of an evening, soaring over his domain. His at the price of a woman barely more than a child. "You were right, Chrétien. I could have done things differently. They love her, don't they?" "Aye, they all love her. She would make a fine martyr, too. Best to watch for a dagger in your back, Alain." "I've not hurt her, though by God's Breath I did learn how a man might come so close." "That is not your way, Alain." "So I thought, myself." "You said you did not hurt her." "Hurt her, no. But I left her terrified. I tried to calm her, but I only seemed to make matters worse." "Did you truly think she would welcome you into her arms after being so manhandled most of the day?" "I only sought to bring her under control." "And in so doing, lost control of yourself." "I suppose you know a better way." "Aye, and so do you. Any man chooses what sort of wife he will have by the way he treats her. You always admired Heloise. But do you think she would have been so amiable to a husband who treated her as if she had no more value than a sack of grain?" "I made some guesses, mayhap wrong ones. I thought she meant to betray us before she disappeared. I almost had her trust, but that is certainly gone now. I have much to undo." "But it can be done. A kind act, a word of regret. A promise, some tenderness. It is possible, I think." "I doubt Rufus has any idea what he has sent me to." Chrétien smiled the kind of wicked smile Rufus would favor. "On the contrary, I would not be surprised if he knew exactly what you would meet." "Why do you think that?" "Rufus picks his men carefully. He knew before he sent you that you were the right man. Cheer yourself, my friend. You will find a way." He wished he could believe that. Chrétien could afford to be so blithe. His head was not on the block for his stupidity. But Chrétien had the good sense to remain silent while they walked the rest of the allure. *** He had braved the gauntlet of Saxons in the hall below, unnerved more by the men's quiet disregard, as if they had seen and heard nothing, than if they had challenged him directly. And he was distinctly aware that he was alive only by virtue of the promise Melisande had extracted from them. She was a most unusual woman, to have demanded and gotten such a promise. It was almost as if she had set herself up as sacrifice. Why? And what was it she feared? Even a normally balky bride did not resist what she knew was her husband's right. A woman's purpose in the scheme of things was clear, as was a man's. But while he knew he had not meant to harm her, somehow he had given her an entirely different message. Surely, it must be violence she feared. Not unreasonable, considering her violent father. He should have known that. He owed her more than just an apology. Tomorrow, they would talk.

The brazier's coals still glowed brightly as he stripped off his clothes. He blew at the wax candle and eased his body on top of the warm down quilt, immersing himself in the dark and quiet. A faint noise, like a dove's cooing, seeped through the still air. He raised his head off the pillow, but decided he had imagined it and lay back down. A scream jolted through him. He bolted upright. Puzzled, he leaped from the bed and grabbed his tunic. But he heard nothing more, and so sat down again at the bed's edge. He decided to lie back down. Another scream pierced his ears. He jerked on the garment, relit the candle from the brazier, and barged through the door. The bed was empty, the quilt strewn precariously across the bed's far corner. She was gone again. But the cries still came from the far side of the bed. The girl huddled in the corner, her face a mask of terror. "I won't, I won't!" she cried out. A night terror. Like those that still occasionally afflicted Chrétien when he recalled his own night of terror. He hoped the cause was not as hideous, but from what Thomas had told him, his hopes could be in vain. He knelt beside her. "Melisande. Wake up. It is but a dream." "I won't, no, please! Don't hurt--" "Melisande, wake up." He stood and reached down her. "No!" she screeched. "I won't-- let me go!" She looked directly at him as nonsense words flowed out, a rattle of things he couldn't piece together. And as she screamed, she tried to push herself farther back into the corner. But there was no place to go. She turned on her knees and clawed at the wall. Plaster flaked beneath the onslaught of her nails. "No, don't-- I can't-- don't leave me!" It was his fault. He had done this to her. Big as he was, he must still be terrifying to her. But what could he do about that? Sit. Alain sat on the floor, and slowly edged himself along the wall, drawing as close to her as he dared. The odd words flowed from her in a steady, incoherent and hurried stream. He had seen that before, too. Night terrors were common among men who had fought too hard, too long, too many terrible battles. Most had seen something they desperately wanted to forget. "Melisande," he said gently, and kept calling her name, until she quieted, and words diminished to an unintelligible whisper, interspersed with gasps like hiccups. Her eyes stared off at nothing. "Melisande, it is but a dream. No one will hurt you." "Hurt--" "No, lady, no one will hurt you. Ah, lady, I am sorry. I had not meant to frighten you. I was wrong." "Don't--" He knew she had not yet come around. He kept talking. "I had no right to treat you that way, Melisande. And I do not want us to be enemies. I should be your protector, not the one that frightens you so. I will not let it happen again. I promise you." He reached out, stroked his fingers on her cheek, and wove them into her tangled hair. "You are so lovely, my lady. Even in your ragged clothing, you are by far the loveliest woman I have ever known."

He would have expected her to recoil from his touch. Instead, her own small hand took his and held it at her cheek. He slipped his other arm around her and drew her into his arms. The gulping sobs and screeches faded to thin whimpers, then slowly faded to nothing as his hands stroked over her tangled hair, across her shoulders. "You will be all right, love. The dream is gone now." For a while he held her, not quite daring to break the spell. But the chamber was chilly and she wore no more than a light linen chemise. Not enough to keep her warm. Alain stood, awkwardly lifting her in his arms, then carried her to the bed, where he lowered her gently to the feather mattress. But when he straightened to reach for the quilt, her arms latched about his neck with a desperate ferocity. "Nay," she said, and clung tightly to him. "Lady, you are cold. I must get the quilt for you." "Nay," she pleaded, and her arms tightened. He bent and crawled over the top of her, grabbing at the quilt as he went, and lay down at her side. With his free hand, he pulled the cover over her and tucked it around her. "Don't leave me." "Nay, I won't go. I'll stay as long as you need me." She nestled her head into his shoulder while he stroked gently over her back and through her damp hair. Sudden need struck him as he drew her against his body, a passion forgotten in the frightening struggle just past. He would ignore it. God's Breath, he didn't know how, for he had long desired her, but he must. She needed his comfort, not his aggression. His lips kissed tenderly on her hair, then cheek, and she made no objection. Her lips invited him, instead. Just one kiss, to reassure her. If she did not like it, he would stop. He lifted her chin with his fingers and his lips found hers, touching like feathers. His body screamed at him, demanded its fulfillment. But he was not the important one at the moment. He would give her what she needed from him, for she was his wife, now. Wife. An odd word it seemed, now, for a new sort of meaning had become attached to it. A personal one. Something special. Someone special, this woman in his arms. As you find her. No questions asked. Ah, Rufus, what is it you know? Why would you not tell me? And what had been done to this girl? Was it Fyren's doing? Suddenly he wished the man alive, so that he might slay him, himself. He felt her hand straying across his chest, beneath the open tunic, felt its delicate fingers nestling in among the hairs, stroke across nipples that suddenly hardened with her touch. His body ran riot, demanding what he dared not give it. She surely did not know what her touch did to him. Yet she was a woman of the modern age; she had to know what all society expected of her. She had known well enough in the earlier evening hours when she had fought him with every ounce of her strength and being. What was so different now, that she would so readily forgive him? He had done little beyond soothe her in her terror. He did not trust himself. Never in his life had he said that, never before now. He should leave. Yet her body begged him to stay with her. And she needed him. Caught in the quandary, he again brought his lips to hers. Her mouth opened invitingly. He could not resist. With his tongue, he probed tentatively into the warm, moist, yielding corners of

her mouth. The tip of her tongue found his, answered his with its own tender, tentative exploration. His body tautened, fiercely demanding satisfaction for its urgent need. God's Breath, how was he to manage this? He should have left. It was too late. "You have only to tell me stop, and I will stop." His voice sounded to him like a coarse, ragged whisper, and he feared he was lying. But she said nothing. In the dim glow of the guttering candle, her solemn blue eyes watched him as he pulled away as if she feared he would leave. But he sat and yanked the tunic off over his head and tossed it away, not caring where it lit. "My lovely lady, I have wanted you in my arms from the moment I saw you." With a gentleness, and a calmness he did not feel, he caught the hem of the linen chemise, and lifted it as his hands ran smoothly up her thighs and hips, raised it past her breasts, over her head. Aye, she even raised her arms to help him. He fought against the wildly rampant urge to take her now, hard and swift, before she changed her mind. He did not think she would send him away now, but what if she did? He dared not think of it. Instead, he skimmed the flawless white skin of her belly with his fingertips and ignored his barbarous urge to press her fiercely to him. "You have only to say the word, my love, and I will stop." "Do not leave me." Her arms again encircled his neck, tugged him downward to her. He was undone. Beyond calling back. A heavy moan coursed through him as he slid down so that he could capture the rosy tip of one nipple in his mouth, while both hands cradled her round breasts. Her eyes closed tightly and she whimpered with his touch. He felt her thighs separate beneath his weight, lodging him between them, where he wanted most on God's earth to be. He wanted her, but more than that, wanted her to crave him in the same deliciously painful way that he needed her. Lifting his body to let his hand pass between them, he found her source of passion buried in its curly nest. The first touch raised her high off the bed, her blue eyes bright and startled, before they softened to the smoky glow of pleasure. "Ah, lady, you like that. I will give you anything you want. You will see." And she did like it. Her whimpers became moans of passion as he stroked, increasing tempo with her rising demand. Ah, aye, he would give her anything, everything. But for himself, time was running out, his need too strong. And she was ready for him, welcoming his entry into her body. Exquisite jolts shot through him as he moved to join her, slowly, carefully, refusing to allow his wild aggression to take over. Slowly, with a rare and elegant motion, he slid within her, soon nestled snugly within. There was no barrier. As you find her. Nor did he care, for his need had quickened into voracious hunger, desperate for filling. All gentle tenderness vanished as his lust became obsession. She rode with him, each stroke becoming more precious, deeper, harder, faster, as she demanded more and more of him, and he sought to fulfill it. Again, again, again, until her body burst into a tempest of undulating contractions, and he, in a maelstrom of his own, felt the torrent of ecstasy flood through him, engulf them. He held her tightly against his still rigid and trembling body as they rode the last wave together, wrapped in its final warmth. The storm was spent at last, and they rocked on the gentle, quiet sea in each other's arms.

His strength, too, was spent. He could do no more than rest his head against her breasts and caress with tiny strokes over her damp hair. "I will cherish you, my love, all my life. Aye, I think we will deal very well with each other." Her solemn blue eyes closed, left behind a look of peace on her face. Her hands rested against his back at his waist, fingering the indentation of his spine. Sweet Jesus, give me this precious lady for the rest of my days, and I will be happy. She slept. Once again he pulled the abandoned cover snugly about her body and arranged her long yellow hair outside it. Strange, that she should sleep with her hair unbound, after going about all day with it plaited. Or that she would sleep in a garment. Or that she was no virgin. But he did not care, only wanted to stay this night at her side, where he could touch and hold her. Now he saw reason for her strange solemnity. But he wished he could see her smile. Just once. Mayhap, tomorrow. *** The first sounds of morning woke him, the morning bell, a kestrel's screech, the cock at dawn. He raised up on one elbow and peered happily at the prize beside him. She still slept. She had not moved from where she had been when his eyes at last had closed the night before. She would be tired. Very tired. Her wedding night, unexpected as it was, must have drained her. And there was no need for her to rise. None would expect it of her. Today, she would go back to being a lady. She would no longer need to hide from him, for they were now one. He sat on the bed as the early morning light sifted through the narrow double window, beyond the cracks of the shutters. He wanted to touch the tangled yellow hair, caress her soft cheek. Nay, let her rest. That they must talk, he understood. Perhaps she had feared what he would do when he discovered her lack of virginity. She might well harbor notions of Normans and their vindictive treatment of unvirtuous or disobedient brides, notions that were neither wholly inaccurate nor unjustified. She had deceived him in many ways, lied to hide herself. But he could forgive that, too. She had already forgiven much more. He picked up his discarded tunic from the floor, and tugged it over his head. He had brought naught else into the room save the candle, and its flame had long since drowned in its own wax. He took it, too, and walked through the door between the chambers. The latch clicked into its notch. He soon was dressed and out the door. He took the wooden stairs two at a time. Below on the dais, the knights stood, awaiting the day's events. Chrétien took one look at him and started laughing.

CHAPTER 11 "What is so amusing, Chrétien?" Chrétien's audacious grin spread even wider. "Yesterday I saw that big red tabby with a spindly mouse tail dangling from its mouth. Methinks he wore the same bold grin."

The Norman knights leaned back, roaring with laughter. Robert slapped his broad hand on the table, and his eyes watered. The Saxon knights merely snickered into their ale. Even Gerard seemed more at ease than he had been the night before. Alain frowned and growled at Chrétien. But he could not deny to himself there was a certain spring in his gait that had not been there yesterday. And he guessed the smile he could not keep off his face looked unusually silly. "You were not at chapel this morning, Alain," said Robert. "I overslept." The loud guffaws echoed through the hall, Saxon and Norman alike slapped each other's back and wiped tears from their eyes. "Overslept, he says!" Robert laughed. "More like the vixen kept him up all night. She'll lead him a pretty chase, I'll wager." "Save your coin, Robert. I'll manage my own life." "Aye. Just the way she says!" Hugh spit out the words between bursts of laughter. Gerard's laughter joined the others. "He does swagger in his nether parts. "Aye, 'twill be so." Alain slanted a glance at Gerard, watching for signs of jealousy. But he saw none. If the lady had a lover within the hall, he would seem the most obvious possibility. But that was the trouble, it was too obvious. The man made no secret of his loyalty and showed only relief that things were turning out well. But if not him, then who? Wallis? He was a young and attractive man, mayhap would make a passable lover. Should he watch for that dagger in his back from another? Mayhap one of the knights who had absconded? There was another possibility. Rape. Aye, and that would explain Melisande's fear even better than a lover she did not want to give up. But Fyren's daughter? Who would have dared? He didn't mind their hilarity at his expense. He rather enjoyed it, in fact. But his own mood for it had passed. He ignored their banter as he drew the big chair up to the trestle table and helped himself to the generous piles of food. *** Melisande woke, not with the usual dread and fear that morning brought, but with a devastating certainty. She had walked. What she had done, she didn't know. She never knew, only that it had happened. Sometimes she found herself asleep in a corner, or at all odd places in her chamber, or she might have by chance made it back to her bed. Sometimes, as now, woke completely bare, despite that she always wore the linen chemise to bed. Her hair might be unbraided and tangled, as it was now. And there would be an achiness to her body, as if every muscle had been strained beyond its capacity. That, always. But she had no memory of what she had done. None. She sometimes screamed and cried. Thomas told her that. Once she had clawed at the wall until her fingernails broke and bled. Like now. Yellow plaster clung beneath her nails. New marks scraped on the walls in the corner. She never knew why. If the Norman lord had seen her terror, seen the demons take hold, she would not live long. He would call for his Norman priest, and they would exorcize the demons from her. No matter that she would not survive their attempts. That was only one of her fears.

Melisande sat up, shifted her aching body to the bed's edge, slid her feet to the floor and fished about with her toes for her chemise until she found it. She fetched it up and pulled it on. No point in continuing her charade now. She opened her chest and removed the folded blue kirtle, her favorite, and pulled it over her head, then her pale green overdress that fit closely to her bodice, and adjusted the side slits to reveal the kirtle's decorated sleeves and exposed embroidered hem. With her silver comb, she worked the tangles from her hair, until it flowed in yellow waves over her shoulders and down, nearly to her knees. She added a length of amber beads around her neck. Her mother's gold ring was still on her finger where the Norman had shoved it, and on the other hand, the new ring with its brilliant blue stone cabochon, symbol of her marriage. Melisande squeezed her eyes shut, as if that somehow would help her bring back some memory that had been lost from the night before. But it was like a tangle of odd threads, so jumbled she was not even clear on the order in which things had occurred. There had been that mockery of a wedding, and then the Norman's angry attack on her after he found her in the cavern. Then he had left. Simply left, without taking his due. Nelda had come and sat with her, soothed her, gently unbraided and combed her hair. Then left. After that, nothing. A black and empty gap in time, bounded by death and Hell. Shame flooded her. Once again she had allowed herself to succumb to terror. She tried to be brave, but she was the worst of cowards. She tried to tell herself that her death would not matter, but she knew where she was bound. God did not hear her prayers for salvation, for he had given her over to the demons. She would die and go to Hell, and Fyren would be there. Waiting. Satan would give her over to him, for he was much beloved by the Devil. She dared not imagine what he would do to her then. For all her fantasies of the Norman lord, he would not save her. He had shown her he was but a man, after all. And she was too cowardly to die. The one time when God had given her what she asked for, the Norman lord to save her people, she found herself too afraid to pay the price He demanded. As she reached for the door latch, she suddenly realized she really was still alive, and she had not expected that. Aye, she had forgotten, she was supposed to die on her wedding night. It must mean, then, that the Norman lord had not come back after she had fallen asleep. He had abruptly risen just when he should have-And he had left. And not returned. What sort of man was he? Did he not find her pleasing enough? For him, this marriage was merely a matter of land and position. He must think her ugly. That was it. Well, she didn't care what he thought. He was a brutish man. Mayhap, then he didn't know. If he had not returned, then he had not seen what the demons did to her. Mayhap she had one more day. One more day to live. Another day to torture herself. It would be better just to have it done with. If she only had the courage. She stood at the head of the stairs and took a deep breath. Shoulders squared and chin lifted, she took the stairs slowly, moving as her mother had taught her, with grace. There was nothing else for it but to go down. Today she would not let terror consume her. *** "Holy mother!" Alain glanced up from his meat at Robert, who gawked up the staircase. Curious, he turned. His jaw dropped. He thought his heart stopped. All things around him stopped, stunned by the

vision. Melisande descended the stairs, her dress a blue like the sky, and green like the new green of trees in spring. All about her, her hair, yellow as sunshine, fell in waves. This was the way she should have been, all along. But her solemn blue eyes said naught of the night they had passed together. She still had that characteristic grimness about her. Smiling was something everyone could do, could they not? All, except this woeful angel. He swore to make her smile. It would be like the warmth of sunshine after a hard winter. Aye. He would bring her the happiness she lacked, for surely she would bring much of it to him. Standing at the base of the stairs, he awaited her descent as eagerly as he awaited the rest of their lives together. He held out his hand to her. The blue eyes lowered, assessed him, raked over him head to toe, and returned to meet his gaze, not with the warmth and light he had expected, but a cold and hard, angry challenge. They had just returned to winter. Contempt met his puzzlement. Her hand lowered onto his, touching only where it must. How could she be indifferent to him after the night they had shared? "Lady?" Gerard asked, his voice distressed. "Do not trouble yourself, Gerard. I am unharmed." A brittleness tinged her words, so that Gerard nearly flinched. "You did not sleep well, Melisande?" Alain asked. The knights on the dais sniggered. Wallis snorted, choked on his ale. "Well enough," she replied. "Under the circumstances." He could not fathom what that might mean. Mayhap she was a bit sore this morning. But she had never seemed to be one who resented such things, and she certainly had not appeared to be so last night. Best to let the subject drop. "It will do you good to break your fast. You did not eat well at supper." "With good enough reason." "You were upset. But come and be at ease. All will be well." And she did not believe that, he could see. Something was amiss. But what? Something she would not wish to share in the company of lesser intimates, surely. He led her to her chair, and although many had finished their meals he sat beside her in the lord's chair and carved slender slabs of pork with his knife. "Will you have pork this morning, lady? It is very juicy and tender today." "Tis not the pork he speaks of, I'll wager." Alain shot a warning glower at Robert. The man had never been noted for delicacy, but Alain was not inclined to overlook the lack at the moment. He offered the first of the pork from the point of the knife. She shook her head. "You must eat, Melisande, or you will grow thin." "I care not." "Mayhap. But I do. Eat." She did not turn toward him, but a narrowed, angry eye peered sideways from beneath her golden lashes. Angry, then. Because he had not stayed with her, but left at first light? He carved off a smaller piece, offered it. She sullenly accepted it, and chewed it slowly. By the time she had finished that piece, he had another dainty morsel ready, which she also took. The fourth, she refused. "Bread, then, with fresh butter? It is unusually sweet and soft this morning."

"Aye, at least something is sweet and soft," said Gerard, who frowned in the direction of his lady. Ire blazed back from her eyes. The exchange puzzled Alain. Why would Gerard be changing sides now? But that was the least of his problems. Gerard could go hang himself, and Alain would not be overly affected. But what was the burr the lady had beneath her saddle? "Bread, then," he said, as if he had not noticed Gerard's barb. And he slathered the warm butter on a freshly trimmed slice of the fragrant bread. She eyed the slice with avarice, seeming to be utterly torn between the rebellion in her heart and the empty pit that was her stomach. Her stomach won, and she took the bread without a word. She was hungry, then. He trimmed off another slice and spread on the rich, yellow butter. Something about that act seemed to aggravate her ire, yet she took the slice. Whatever was the matter with the girl? It was as if she wanted to eat, but didn't want to take it from him. He felt his patience wearing thin. "If we have something to discuss, Melisande, I would prefer it in private to this show of defiance." "I should prefer the company of others, lord." "And I would prefer to hear you use my name." "I do not wish to. Lord." Devil take it! Alain slammed the point of his dagger into the table as he stood, shoving back the huge chair so that it nearly toppled. Melisande flinched. Her eyes widened with fear. "Feed yourself, then," he boomed. "Chrétien, let us be about the business of men." Astonished, Chrétien rose to follow. Alain regretted his flash of temper, but he would not withdraw it. Best to withdraw himself. He strode angrily toward the narrow steps that led down from the dais. Something swished past his hand, and thudded into the wooden pillar beside him. His dagger, still quivering, sank into the hard oak. She dared throw his dagger at him? Alain yanked at the knife from the wooden post, whirled fiercely at her. Chrétien's hand clutched Alain's shoulder. The girl glared, her fists tightly wrapped in rage. "You forgot something." The dagger rotated in his hand as if he actually contemplated throwing it. He did not, only meant to have her think it. Her seething eyes dared him. For whatever terror she had experienced the day before, today she was brimming for a fight. He would not give it to her. "How kind of you," he said, anger gripping around his eyes. He spun again to head out the door at the far end of the hall, with Chrétien close at his heels. But not fast enough to miss the banter behind him. "Mayhap I will go home," said Gerard, and his voice danced with acid amusement. "It becomes dangerous here." "Aye, Gerard, go home to your wife. You risk your life to stand between these two," said a Saxon voice. "Aye, that's the thing, Gerard," said another. "Go home to your wife. Throw a few pots. Toss a few daggers. Methinks you'll have a rollicking good romp of a night." "Aye. And safer, too." Gerard's hearty laugh quickly subdued to a bare snicker. "Mayhap the lady is able to fight her own battles, and has no more need of me."

Alain slammed the door behind him and stomped all the way to the stone steps of the allure, then up them, muttering epithets he hadn't used since he was a boy. Villein and knight alike scurried out of his way. "Out! Begone!" he shouted to the masons and hod carriers, who abandoned the allure to the angry Norman. "What do you rant about, Alain?" Chrétien asked, with an odd lilt to his voice. "Rant? Nay, I am praying." "Praying? Indeed." "I ask God if I have sinned so greatly that I must spend the remainder of my days shackled to a lunatic." "Mayhap it is not all that bad." "A lunatic, I tell you. A demon-possessed, night-crazed lunatic. The girl is scrambled in the cockloft." "Mayhap she was not as eager as you thought." "She welcomed me, I tell you. What manner of woman takes a man to her bed so willingly that she will not let him go, yet disdains his very glance the next day?" "One who was not satisfied?" To Alain's indignant glare, Chrétien merely stood amiably where he was, grinning. Chrétien laughed. He clapped his hand on Alain's shoulder. "Cheer yourself, Alain. That she is troubled, all can see. For all that she is a rare beauty, never have I met a maid so grim. But it will all work out. You merely must unravel the thread." Alain could not long stay angry with Chrétien. The man's infuriating good humor always got in the way. But he was not yet ready to let it go. "Hah. Now you are philosopher and weaver, as well. Begone, Chrétien. I cannot abide such good cheer." But Chrétien would not be gone. With his implacable good will, he stayed near his lord and friend for the remainder of the day. *** The Lady Melisande went about her day as if nothing had happened to her, either. Alain came upon her sitting in the bright sunshine mending a white linen cloth. For a moment, he watched the tiny stitches running through the cloth, back and forth across a diagonal slash, and guiltily realized it was the one in the tablecloth he had stabbed earlier that day. She glowered at him and returned to her task with renewed energy. Around him, men hastened off to their tasks, eagerly accepting any assignment they could get that would put them a distance from their lord's short temper. He had only to ask, 'what news of Rufus?', or 'how goes the new motte?', and men rode off to find out. It was not just that the lady had gotten the best of him and he had allowed her to keep it that way. It was that infernal headache again, that throbbed at his temples, pounded behind his eyes, making him feel dizzy and trembling. He dared not admit it, nor let it show in his demeanor. To display that weakness would leave him open to insurrection from the Saxons, and he could not risk that, when Rufus was so close and depending on him. Yet he could do nothing to change it. Well, it would go away on its own eventually, and he would just have to tolerate it until it did. A hot bath. That would do. And the lovely lady who played servant could assist him. On the other hand, this might not be the best time to give her the advantage of hot water as her weapon. His squire would just have to do. ***

Melisande did not seat herself at the lord's table for dinner, nor for supper. She bustled about in her customary fashion, directed the servers and carvers, and those who came afterward to clean. She ate in the kitchen with the servants, as if she were one of them. Alain did not stop her. He ignored her, as if that truly were her place. Just as he ignored his desire to grab her by her waist and pull her into his lap. And no matter that he couldn't divine the nature of her subtle trap, he would not fall into it again. He excused himself early, telling his comrades they had much to do the following morning, and took a jug of wine with him to his chamber. After a few more swigs of the wine straight from the jug, he undressed and lay for a while on the bed atop the cover. He had never possessed a quilt of down before, and ran his hand back and forth across the light, springy surface, in awe that anything so soft and light could be so warm. Gradually, the wine's effect seeped in, softening the pain in his head, and the haze of halfsleep crept up on him. Slowly, he lost the cares of the day. The same odd whimper he had heard the night before brought him to his senses. He sat up. Nay, he would not fall for that one again. He lay back down, yanked the down pillow over his head, and tucked it tightly about his ears. Now he could not hear it. But aye, he could. A little fainter, mayhap, but he could hear it. Well, he would ignore it. The faint noise escalated to frightening gasps, painful sobs. He could hear her begging. Pleading to someone-- to him? By God's Blood, he would make her stop it! He would tell her she would not fool him again if she screamed all night. He flung open the door, and it banged against the wall behind it. The girl shrieked, whirled about and shrank down to the floor, her back against the wall. Her wild eyes stared emptily across the chamber toward the beamed ceiling. "Oh, please don't! She didn't mean it! No, don't! Oh, no! Oh, no!" Demented. The girl was demented. Sweet Christ, what was he going to do, now? "I won't let you! Ow! No, it hurts, don't--" She dissolved into plaintive moans, fell to the floor with her arms laced over her belly. His resolve collapsed, and he knelt beside the tortured girl. "Melisande, it is all right. It is just a dream. You must wake up." He stroked his hand over her hair, that was already soaked with perspiration. "I won't do it again, please, no, I won't!" Her voice sounded like a child crying. "Please don't hurt her!" Someone else? Not just her? Or was it only a demented girl's tortured mind? "Melisande. Come now, wake up. It will all be gone then. Wake up." He wriggled his arms in about her waist to raise her from the floor. "No!" she shrieked. "You can't make me!" "Up, girl." He brought her to her knees, then lifted her higher, to her feet, except that she couldn't seem to stand on them. He pressed her gently against him, to absorb her weight, held her still and talked softly, stroked tenderly at her back. "Come now, girl, you will be all right." Somehow her feet began to take her weight. She leaned her face into his chest, and slowly the cries subsided to an occasional gasp. "You see? It is but a dream. There is no one to hurt you." Aye, it was but a dream, brought on by the terrible way her life had spun about her, like Chrétien's dreams. How could he have forgotten? Her father had died merely a week before, and

not long before that, her mother. Then the Normans had come, taken over her home and forced her into marriage. She needed better of him than she had gotten. "Come to the bed now, love. I will stay with you until you sleep, and you will be safe." She went obediently. Her feet seemed almost not to touch the floor as he led her. She didn't seem to know how to find it by herself, but stood submissively at its edge, looking at him, her eyes darkened with earnest, pleading fear. "I'm cold," she said. "Let me wrap you up, then." "It's so cold. And dark. It's so dark down here. Please don't leave me." "I won't leave you." "Please don't leave me down here! It's so dark and cold! Please don't! Don't leave me down here!" She didn't know he was here. She was looking straight at him, yet did not see him, or know he was here. Her words were not for him, but for some mysterious tormenter. She was locked inside her dream, and couldn't get out. Alain pulled her into his arms, gulping back his own sorrowful shock. Oh, sweet Jesus, what had he done? She had not invited him to her bed. She had only been begging her abuser to let her free. "Ah, lady, I have wronged you again. I did not know. I thought you wanted me. You do not remember anything, do you?" Of course she did not, for her dreams were not like Chrétien's after all. She appeared awake, but she was not, for the dream still possessed her. Unlike her, Chrétien always remembered every horrifying detail. What was he to do now? He could not leave her like this. What might happen next? Might she, in her dream state, somehow hurt herself? Yet she would be furious if she found him with her in the morning. Well. She might as well become accustomed to it. From here on, he was going to be beside her every morning. Alain scooped her into his arms, grabbed her quilt of down by its corner, and carried her into his bed chamber. He eased her down onto his bed. "Nay," she said, and clung to his neck as he began to straighten. "I will stay with you. But you must let go now." She still clung, and protested when he pried her loose. He lit his wax candle from the brazier and brought the second quilt over her before crawling into the other side of the bed. He drew her body snugly against him. "You will never be cold again, my lady. And as long as you need it, there will always be a candle burning. Someday, you will wake for me, and the darkness will go away forever. You will see."

CHAPTER 12 The dawn came softly, in pale slivers of pink and grey light through the plank shutters. Encompassed in her down cocoon, and becoming aware of a delicious, comforting warmth, Melisande slowly opened her eyes.

Her hand wrapped about another hand, a large one with silky black curls on its back, that rested against her breast. She jolted awake. Her gaze traced from hand to arm to the Norman lord, whose body nestled against her back. Her startled shriek split the air. His eyes popped open beneath his black, angular brows as she flung his hand away from her, and he smiled. A lazy, easy smile. "Good morning." "What are you doing here?" Melisande squeaked, as the thought dawned on her the more appropriate question might be, what was she doing here, for this was not her bed chamber. "It is my bed," he said, and fell back again onto his pillows to watch her. He stretched his long arms outward, then folded them behind his head. The quilt fell away from him, baring a broad chest with a sprinkling of black hair on it. Very likely, he had nothing on beneath the quilt. As it was she who broke with custom and slept in a chemise, she checked her own body, relieved to see that at least she still remained clothed. Unlike yesterday. That stiff soreness in her body told her she had once again walked. And he knew it. Very possibly, that wasn't all he knew. She dared not ask, but dashed off to her own bed chamber. The door slammed abruptly behind her before she could force her lungs to take another breath. But wait. If anything had happened, he wouldn't have been smiling. Why hadn't anything happened, then? He was a healthy man. For two nights in a row, he had not taken what was rightfully his? Mayhap he wasn't normal. She had heard about men like that. The stories about the king's court were full of men who did not find their pleasure with women, but with other men. Or mayhap he merely thought her too ugly to be interesting. That seemed more plausible. Then, what had happened? Could she possibly have walked into his chamber in the middle of the night and gotten into his bed? When she walked, anything was possible. Her fingers trembled as she lifted the chemise over her head and sought a cleaner one. This one was stiff with sweat. She ran her fingers through her scalp. It also felt sticky and stiff. It had been one of those terrible nights, then. Yet she had waked feeling warm and content. Could she be wrong? Wondering how soon she could contrive to take a bath, she jerked her kirtle off the peg and pulled it over her head, wiggling it into place, then unfurled what was left of her braid to make it into some semblance of neatness. The door creaked. She sucked in a quick breath and held it, as the Norman lord entered. She sighed her relief. At least he had taken the time to don clothing. "I did not invite you in." His smile was impish. "You do not need to. Do you fare better this morning, lady?" "Better. Better than what?" Not that she did not know. "You were distressed last night." "I am often distressed. It is no concern of yours." "It is my concern. I am your husband." "And I do not wish that, either." "You may not wish it, but you cannot change it, any more than can I. And when you cry out to me in your distress, it is my duty to give you comfort." "I do not wish it." "Then you have only not to call me, and I will not come."

Call him? Surely she had not. She could not truly say she had not. Who knew but him what she had done? But she would not ask him what had happened. She turned away and attacked the tangles in her hair with her comb. "I will help you with that." He reached for the comb, but she jerked it away. "I do not need help. I manage my own hair." "Your hair is beautiful," he replied, and paused a moment to stroke it. "When you have dressed, we will go down to chapel." She stifled the protest that rose in her throat. She could not tell him God did not want her in His chapel. Yet--. It would not be the first time she had defied God and His order, and lightning had not struck her. Mayhap God had taken note of her plan, might see she meant for some good to come of it, despite that she herself was damned. She nodded, shifting her gaze back and forth from floor back to his dark eyes. The gentle smile he gave her as he departed confused her. He did not seem to be a gentle man, but a fierce, aggressive warrior who would take what he wanted at any cost to others. Gentle or no, she had no time. Already, she saw signs that the poison was gaining on him. She had little enough time left to find a way to deprive him of that cloak he thought so wonderful, and she had no more ideas how to do it. Thievery had failed, as had persuasion and chicanery. It must have a spell on it. Why else would he cling to it so tenaciously, just as her mother had? Worse, she had no idea what she would do with the thing once she got it, for it must be destroyed for all time. Anything buried could be dug up. Fyren had told her the arsenic in the dye would preserve the fabric forever, and it might be so. She had never known whether or not to believe Fyren. She could not throw it in the river, for it would poison the water people drank, mayhap the fish they ate. She had never seen the sea, but suspected even it would not be deep enough to be safe. And if she burned it, the poison would be carried into the air by the smoke, where people would breathe it. She had once thought of the cavern beneath the castle, where there were several deep pits. No one would be likely to go in them, ever. But water flowed through the cavern's bottom into the becks that fed into the river and would poison her own people. Nay, it must be something that would be safe forever. Who was she, to judge forever? When the last tangle in her hair yielded to the silver comb, Melisande straightened herself and breathed deeply. From now on, she would watch him as thoroughly as he watched her, would learn everything about him, find something that would give her the opportunity she needed. She would be close to him as often as she might without arousing his suspicion. And then, she would betray him, in order to save his life. *** "What news of Rufus?" Alain asked of the group of men huddled about the crude map on the oak table in his chamber. "He comes by way of Wensleydale, as you thought," said Chrétien. "A messenger has just come and says all goes well." "You have sent to Rufus our situation?" "Aye. And of the new motte at Anwealda's old holding." "And what of the motte, Robert?"

"Hugh does well. Some villeins and a few archers were killed in the forest while they cut timbers. Anwealda also lost men. You did well to send archers, for his knights were at disadvantage in the wood." "And when the palisades are raised, knights will be at disadvantage again. Gerard, you are pensive. What think you?" Gerard's soulful brown eyes hardened suddenly, so that Alain wondered about the man's thoughts. "I wonder where Anwealda is. He hides somewhere, surely near his holding, for twice he has attacked near there." "Where, do you think?" "I know not, lord, yet we must find him. Rufus' path must fall through the Mallerstang and the Vale of Eden. And that gives Anwealda too much advantage." "Thomas, what think you?" "Caverns, mayhap? How else could he hide so many men?" "Mayhap," Gerard agreed. "Yet we have not the men to patrol the hills. He could be camped but another dale beyond, and we would not know it." A puzzled frown crept onto Alain's face. "Yet did you not say men would not go into the caverns?" "Some, it is true," said Thomas. "But some caverns do not have hobs. And some men do not fear them, I think." "Has no one taken a captive?" "None that will talk, or know of anything." "What of Dougal and Cyneric? Do they ride with Anwealda?" "We cannot tell," Gerard said. "We have found but one of Cyneric's men. None of Dougal's." Alain focused on the map again, frowning, tracing in his mind the triangle formed by Cyneric's southern holding, and the two northern ones of Dougal and Anwealda. This strange fortress Alain now held was right in the middle. "They may all have gone north, then, all the way to Carlisle, to defend it. Alert Rufus to this." Gerard moved around the table to study the map more closely. "Wallis reports that not all of Cyneric's knights in the south will fight with him. Some throw their support to Rufus. Also he thinks Cyneric is not so far away, and may not be with Anwealda." "If Wallis is right, Cyneric could attack Rufus' rear, once the king has reached the Mallerstang Common," said Chrétien, drawing his finger over the long valley of the Mallerstang in the center of the map. "Or he could besiege us, once Rufus is past, making the king's retreat impossible." "Aye. If Anwealda joins him against us, then even if Carlisle does fall, Rufus could be trapped. Is Strathclyde strong enough to resist Rufus at Carlisle?" "Mayhap," said Thomas. "If Malcolm sends them help. But we have heard naught of Malcolm." Alain rubbed his fingers across his chin. A flash of memory invaded him as he caught the faint scent of rosemary still clinging to his hands. He set aside the image for later. "Our plan will not change yet. We must know more before we shift our men again. But keep watch. Our enemy is sly." With that, he dismissed the knights to their duties. Alain watched them depart, wondering again the purity of their loyalty to their lady. Did they know of her dreams? Thomas might. He

signaled Thomas to remain behind, and said naught until the door closed behind the last of the others. "Thomas, do you hear her when she cries out at night?" "Hear her, lord?" "Aye, the lady. You must have heard something." "Aye." Thomas looked like a guilty child confessing he had stolen an apple. "Tell me what you know of this." "Aye, lord. Sometimes she cries out. But none know why." "And none of you goes to her aid?" "She does not wish it, lord. We saw last night, by the light beneath the doors, that you went to her. But she has never allowed any of us to see her then." Aye, he could understand that. Mayhap she found it too humiliating to be seen so by her servants and friends. "And does this happen often?" "More when she was younger. Not so much for a while, but again more lately, since her mother died. I have been locking her door for a long time." "You lock her in?" "Aye." "Does she know this?" "Aye." "But she is afraid to be locked in." That would explain why she clawed at the wall. "Aye, but I am afraid she will go onto the balcony and fall. Be kind to her, lord. She cannot control these things." As you find her. No questions asked. Rufus's words seemed to echo in his head like a taunt. Aye, he would keep her, as he found her. But he would ask many questions. Not even Rufus could deny him that. That explained why they had hidden her from him. They could not have known of the promise Rufus had extracted from him. They surely must have believed, as had she, that the Norman lord would not tolerate a woman out of her competence. Nor her lack of virginity, although they might be ignorant of that matter. He did not intend to mention it. "You think her demented then, don't you?" "It is not her fault, lord. And it is only at night." "Aye, that I know. But she is not demented. This is not demons, Thomas. That, I know, too. It is only her fears, and hideous memories. She must have many of them. She must learn to become at ease with her memories, and that will be very hard." "I do not think it can be done, lord." He was not at all sure, himself. "We will find a way." So they all loved and protected their demented lady. And begged him to do the same. He had plans, to do more than merely endure her night terrors. And promises to keep. "Lord!" came a shout, and Alain looked down over the balcony rail to see Robert run breathlessly into the hall toward the staircase. "Robert? Speak." "Word comes from Wallis in the south. Cyneric's men have been seen riding toward our southern holdings." "Come, Robert, and show me on my map." "Not I, lord, but the rider comes."

The messenger, one Alain recognized, rushed up behind him, a small man who rode a lithe, long-legged animal. Wallis was wise to supply himself with efficient messengers. The messenger wiped away the sweat from his brow, and stepped up to his lord as Alain reached the bottom step. While the other knights rushed in, Thomas spread out the map on the lord's table on the dais. The rider stared at it blankly for a moment, until Thomas pointed out the positions which he had memorized. "Think of it as how God would look down on us and see where we are," said Thomas, mimicking Alain's previous words. As the concept took hold in the messenger's mind, his face brightened and he traced his route to the north with his finger. He nodded. "Wallis holds his own fief, here, and manages that of Cyneric, here. Cyneric comes out of the hills, here, but we could not discern his direction." Alain studied the map and frowned. "Gerard, on the land, rather than on the map, which fief is more easily reached?" "Wallis," said Gerard in a curiously guarded tone. "Saddle your men, and mine. He will strike there." His finger landed forcefully, not on Wallis' mark, but on the drawn pennon that indicated Gerard's fief. "How so?" asked Gerard, his voice low and guarded. "Wallis would appear to be the weaker point, as he is spread too thin. But you are the weaker of the two because you have come to us, with most of your men. He will feint toward Wallis, but move against you." Gerard's face paled. "If you are wrong?" "Best worry if I am right. Wallis is alerted, and can protect himself, but he cannot come to your aid. This is a ruse, but a dangerous one. They hope to draw us away so we cannot assist Hugh, and more, they hope we go to Wallis's aid, leaving Gerard unprotected. But we will do both. Robert, you will ride to the north to aid Hugh. Chrétien, you will stay with Thomas to protect our center." "Where is your wife?" Chrétien asked Gerard. "At home." Chrétien's eyes widened. "Then ride, Alain. Do not let history repeat itself." "My word, Chrétien, I will not. But we have no time to waste. See to my wife while I am gone." Every available man rushed to assist and put the knights on their way. Alain and Gerard rode south, Robert to the north. Alain brought archers mounted on spare horses, that they might reach the destination quickly. This mounting of archers was a new and expensive idea, and the men had little training on horses. A well-schooled knight could easily unseat any of them. But they would fight in their usual way, on foot. The horses would merely get them there sooner, and give him an advantage his enemies would not expect. Alain set the rapid pace. As they galloped down the valley toward the junction of rivers where Gerard's fief lay, Gerard stood in his stirrups, scrutinizing the hilltops. "Be wary of ambush, here," said Gerard. Alain nodded, his eyes already scanning for trouble. "What did Chrétien's mean, lord, that history not repeat itself?" "I was too late to save his wife and daughter." Gerard said no more as they rode on.

Gerard pointed to riders near the ridge to their right. "I do not like it," he said. "If they mean to be lookout, they should have been to our left, so they could report without having to cross our path." "Mayhap they did not expect us to be where we are." "Aye. But they still should have been to our left." "What do they mean to do, then?" "Watch for us. Draw us to them, lead us to a trap." "You think Anwealda might be with them?" "It is possible. But, lord, though Anwealda wants his land back, he wants yours more. They may mean to draw you out to my rescue, then take your castle while you are gone." "But they draw us toward Wallis." "Mayhap they have already taken my hall." "We ride there first. We have but one chance to strike. We will go to where the biggest threat is." Gerard's relief was evident, despite that he kept silent. Although the man had done nothing to earn his distrust, Alain had not yet lost his wariness of the knight. As man and knight, Gerard was too good, and that bothered him. But now he would have the opportunity to see him on his own ground, protecting his own. Gerard would have the supreme opportunity to betray his lord. If it happened, Alain did not expect to survive the treachery. And if he had trusted the wrong man, all Rufus's attempts for the north could fail. Would fail. Alain spurred his bay stallion, agitation goading him. He was not particularly impatient by nature, but today he had not Chrétien's presence to caution him. He had only the trust of this Norman knight who seemed Norman in skin only. Alain watched the knight closely, seeing only the anxiety in his deep brown eyes. It was the thing of hauberks, that they concealed many of the gestures that betrayed a man's thoughts. But Gerard was afraid. Gerard led them over the low hills and down a deeply carved, round-bottomed valley. A shallow stream flowed through it before joining a small river. Ahead, at that junction, stood Gerard's half-timbered hall within the high wooden palisade. The clamor of a fight echoed off the surrounding hills. He was right. But was he also too late?

CHAPTER 13 Cyneric had broken through the gate. Terror flashed in Gerard's eyes. The knight was close to rash choices. If Alain did not take charge fast enough, Gerard would move without him. Their intervention would turn to disaster. "We ride together!" Alain called to his force. "We hit hard at their center-- split them at the gate, drive the remaining ones through it. Gerard's men in the bailey still resist, and we will pound them between us." Gerard nodded. A dangerous choice. It would work if they were not out-manned, or pinned in their own trap.

"Once inside, Gerard will press forward. I will back him and spread out. Lowell, you will hold the gate with the archers against more comers. I need prisoners, but spare none until we are secure. At all costs, defeat them." He had not needed to say that. Gerard had earned respect among the Normans who had already ridden with him. And all knew he valued his family. The jangle of spurs rang in his ears as the war horses lunged into a full gallop and raced down the slope onto the green where the wooden castle and its village sat. The din below obscured their coming, but soon they would be spotted. With a sweeping arc of his arm, he called up Lowell as they rode, and pointed to his chosen position for the archers, to each side of the main gate. Lowell split away. Alain spurred forward as Cyneric's horsed knights sighted the advancing Normans. Inside the outer bailey, Gerard's household knights held the inner gate at their backs, slicing against the relentless force of Cyneric's men afoot. Rage burned in Gerard's eyes as he slammed horse and sword against the invading knights to the left of the outer gate. Alain rode beside him, slashing at the right. Others flowed ahead like water between them, hit at the center, then swerved to one side, giving unspent knights the vanguard. Alain's great bay stallion screamed as a Saxon sword struck through its throat. Alain leapt down. With a mighty heave, he swung, caught the Saxon in the middle of his breast, slicing through mail and tunic to blood and bone. His shield blocked the return blow as he slashed beneath it. The Saxon dropped to the ground, screaming agony. Knights fell all around him. The household knights surged with new vigor, drove down from their last stand beside the half-timbered hall. The insurgents, harried at their backs, bloodied before, fell, one by one. Alain forced through the outer open gate to the bailey, taking each of Cyneric's knights as he came. Gerard's cry of fury rang out as he leaped over bodies to dash up the steep slope. The sounds of clashing metal waned. The fight was over, save for two knights who stood, backs against the timber hall, holding a woman and very small girl. Lynet and her baby. Gerard's wife wrestled against the knight's rough grip. The second knight who held the little girl looked uncertain. "The baby," said Alain. "Give her over." The man's eyes flooded with fear, and he shook his head. "You will live if you hand them over unharmed. Hurt either of them and I will hunt you down and kill you, do you go to the ends of the earth." "Nay!" shouted the knight who held the wriggling woman. "We will not turn them loose until we are free of this castle." "You will not get that far. You do not deal with Gerard, you deal with me. I will cut a hundred pieces from your body before I let you die." The knight with the little girl released her, and Gerard scooped her up before she could run to her mother. He passed the baby to safety to the knight behind him, ignoring her screams. "Your name, knight," said Alain. "Botolf." "Then Botolf, you are free to go. If ever you raise arms against me again, you will die." The second rebel stood alone. The din behind them ceased, replaced by hard breaths and the anxious squeak and clank of tense men in armor. "Let her go, Cyneric," said Gerard. His voice growled like a raging bear.

So this was Cyneric. Hard, cold, not a scrap of fear. "You always valued her too much, Gerard. You are a fool." "You will quickly be a dead fool. Let her go." "I am not so stupid to believe you will give me the same pardon you did my cowardly knight. She fits nicely in my arms, does she not?" Cyneric tightened his hold of both the woman and his sword. His shield lay split on the ground. Alain circled to the man's vulnerable left, caught Cyneric's attention as he moved. Mayhap he could keep it. "You shall not take my back, Norman," said the Saxon as he turned. Alain scanned over the lady, trying to devise some way he might save her. Her eyes were fixed upon Gerard, and she silently mouthed words in unison with her husband. One, two, three-"Drop!" shouted Gerard. Like a falling rock, the woman dropped limply to the ground, too quickly for the startled Cyneric to catch her. Gerard's sword swung, caught the Saxon at the neck, bit through hauberk iron. As Cyneric fell, his head lobbed to one side, still suspended by the last remnants of mail. A shout split the air as Lynet leapt into Gerard's arms. Tears fell from Gerard's eyes in a torrent. "Come, little one," said Alain, and took the squirming, screaming child from the knight who struggled with her. Alain felt as honored as if he presented a great gift to the king as he placed the babe in her mother's arms. "Most obedient wife I've ever seen," Alain commented, and turned away to survey the damage. *** When the knights had ridden out in the early morning, Melisande had stood to watch. Between dinner and supper, she had immersed herself in her duties. Now, with pots still simmering in the kitchen against the hope that the knights would yet come before dark, the sun set in dark streaks behind the fells, and she stood upon the allure again. A cold wind blew in clouds that would soon become an evening storm. She pulled her cloak more tightly and strained her eyes to the distant vale toward the south. "They will return, lady. All will be well." She had been preoccupied. She had not heard Chrétien come up to her. "I expect it of them," she replied. Still, she watched, as if she doubted her own words. "He will not disappoint you. He makes an astute move, this one against Cyneric." "You think he is right, then?" "Aye. Alain has a knack for discerning the moves of his enemies. God grant him speed, to be there in time." "Do you trust Gerard, Chrétien?" "Not entirely. Were it not for his concern for you, lady, I would not trust him yet, at all. But he would stand for you to his death, so I know him to be a good man." "Does the lord trust him?" "We shall see. He puts himself in Gerard's teeth today." "How so?" Chrétien gave her his gentle smile, but for a fleet moment she glimpsed the heavy heart obscured behind it.

"Alain goes into Gerard's abode, with but a small accompaniment. If Gerard seeks to trap him, he will never have a better chance." "Gerard will never do that." "I believe you." "Do you? Why?" "Because he honors your wishes." "Then your trust in me is mislaid. I have done naught but deceive the Norman lord." "Aye. But you will learn you have naught to fear of him. Look, lady, beyond the beck. They ride in." "What if it is not them?" "Then we will not open the gates." But she could see by his affable smile he already knew who it was. Mayhap it was his soldier's eyes, for she could not yet tell. Nay- Now she also saw. Barely half the men who had ridden out came riding back. Her hand went to her mouth. "Be at ease, lady. Gerard is not with them. That is the best of news." "How so?" "He stays behind with his men. So they have possession of his hall. And it still stands." "They could have left them with Wallis. Or they could have all been killed." "Ah. You do have a soldier's mind. But you will see. I am right." "I defer to your judgement, for I have never been on campaign." The knights and their mounted archers raised their lord's pennon, and Melisande could distinguish their faces. The Norman lord, his great purple cloak billowing behind him, rode at their head on a white war horse instead of his familiar bay. She could see none of Gerard's men, yet she counted roughly enough to make up the lord's contingent. She tightened her lips, hoping Chrétien was right, and followed him down the stone steps to the upper bailey. The knights rode in, dusty, tired, and some bloody. So there had been a fight. Alain flung himself down from his high saddle, as if he still held the energy of morning in him. But Melisande could see the fatigue in his body. Was it the battle? Or did that malevolent cloak drag his strength from him? "I must see to supper," she said, and hurried off toward the kitchen. She did not have to see to supper. Everything had been seen to, twice over. But now that he was back, she suddenly found herself loath to face him. She could not say why. Aye, she could. He would read the relief on her face. The linens were laid squarely over the trestle table, trenchers in place, and the great roasts she had set aside for them were already being carried in. Her Norman would not be served cold beef, this night. She called to the botler for more ale and wine, for the men now entering the hall overflowed with the excitement of a battle well fought. "Thomas," she said, "Have you seen to the bath?" "Aye, lady. It will be ready by the time the lord finishes his meal." And not only that, he would be seen to by two young pages, while she would keep herself busy elsewhere. She had also seen to that. At the far end of the hall, she set up to care for those who had been injured, with Nelda to assist her. Soon, she felt an odd prickling at her neck, and then the warmth from the Norman lord's body as he stood behind her. She focused her gaze on the slashed arm she was attending, and the task itself kept the nervousness from her fingers as she daubed the wound with her salve

and began her stitching. But she could not manage the silence. "The injuries seem too slight for the sort of conflict I had imagined." "Those with more serious injuries remain with Gerard in Lynet's care." Her worst fears dissolved, and a sort of piteous hope set in. How foolish of her, to hope. Yet when he turned away to join Chrétien, she allowed her eyes to follow covertly. Wishing, wanting, hoping. Foolishly hoping. Now if she could only find some way to keep her hideous dreams at bay so he would not hear her cry out, all would be well for the night. He had said, had he not, that he would not come if she did not cry out? But the only thing she could think of was to sleep in the caverns. Never. Her flesh crawled at the thought. *** As soon as he alit from his charger in the bailey, Alain clapped Chrétien on the back. "All went well, then?" Chrétien asked. "Fair to well," Alain replied. "We caught them in their attack, having already cut off their outriders without knowing we had done it. Cyneric died in the fight. And," he paused while his eyes followed Melisande, who scurried away across the bailey, "Gerard's family is well. He remains there. I will not call him back until Rufus comes. I did not know she is with child." "Mayhap it is his heir. And the others?" "Wallis holds his own, and Cyneric's as well," Alain continued. "We must hope that Robert also reached Hugh in time. You have not heard?" "Nay." "Then if we have not learned by tomorrow, we will send more men. All is well here?" "None complain. The lady has kept a meal ready for you in the event you came home tonight." Alain's eyes darted again in her direction, but she was already gone. "She has also ordered a hot bath for you," Chrétien added, in a slow, knowing drawl. "Thomas saw to it. It will be ready after you eat." His mouth gaped, for he had not expected her to think of his needs so thoroughly. Mayhap she merely meant to keep him busy. "Excellent. We are all hungry. The day has been hard." *** Ah, there it was. He'd begun to doubt himself in the last hour. But he should have known she would not fail him. Nay, it did not matter how much she avoided him, nor how much she pretended otherwise, something deep inside her had already come to count on him. In some way, though she might remember none of what transpired, she knew he would be with her in the night when the terrors hit. He smiled to himself as he rose from the bed. This time he would be there before they got such a grip on her. He pulled the latch and pushed on the door. It seemed stuck. He shoved again, and it gave against his weight, but slowly. Bright girl. She'd pushed her chest against it. But she should have realized that anything she could push there, he could push away. The heavy door yielded, bit by bit. Ah. It was not the chest at all. She had pushed her bed against the door. No matter, as long as it moved. But knowing her cleverness, he decided to watch where he walked. Good thing. She'd left the chamber pot where he could stumble into it. Fortunately for her, he learned the way her mind worked. He was the one fighting the winning battle.

She cringed high up on the bed, pushing her hands against the mattress, shoving herself back, as if the headboard might give way and let her escape. The little whimper that had awakened him erupted into an ear-splitting scream. "Come along now, lady, you have nothing to fear anymore. I have come for you. You are safe now." He didn't know if she heard him. Yet she always seemed to. Though she still trembled and gasped with a whispered torrent of oddly mixed words, she gave no resistance as he lifted her off the bed, and she leaned her head on his shoulder. Her arms found their way about his neck, fiercely clutching. Again he carried her through the door, and left it ajar. The candle he kept lit for her cast its amber glow from the small table where he had sat it. No matter if she remembered the promise, or not, he did. First silent, her hurried, urgent whispers began again as soon as she touched the bed. He could not understand the words, yet knew the ordeal was not over for the night. Instead, he sat at the bed's edge, pulled her back into his arms, and cradled her like a child. Soon even the whispers ceased. "You see, it gets easier, love. I am here, and I will always protect you. Some day, there will be no more dreams." He eased her down onto the bed and raised the down quilt to cover her before sliding into the warm nest beside her. As he lay on his back, he felt her small hand curl onto his chest, and he drew her closer, to let her head rest in the crook of his arm. "Tell me, my sweet," he whispered, "that you do not want to be in my arms. You will find me very hard to convince." But she would be even harder to convince that she did. He would have to tell her some day, and soon, what had happened on their wedding night. He could not tell her now, for she would not be able to understand that he had not taken advantage of her weakness. She probably had not the slightest notion what she was like when she dreamed. Yet if he waited too long, she might discover it some other way, and would never trust him again. That he would tell her, he had no question. She must be told. It was just a matter of discerning when she was strong enough. And trusted him enough. *** She felt the warmth first. Felt it as something beyond the soothing snugness of the soft quilt. Something-- male. There he was again, or rather, there she was. It was her head that rested in the crook of his arm, just as it was her hand running over and through the silky black hairs on his chest. She had already memorized their pattern, a wide band across the top of his chest, coming to the center and down, column-like, between the firm, plated muscles over his ribs. It went down, down-She jerked upward, suddenly sitting. He was awake, smiling. At what? She nearly fell from the bed in her haste to depart, untangling bed covers as soon as her feet hit the floor. The door between their chambers remained open, and her bed askew. She darted through it and slammed it behind her, recalling now how she had shoved the bed against the door. A futile effort. She yanked her kirtle over her head, fumbled with its laces, then pulled on the overdress. Her braid had come loose in the night, and her yellow hair cascaded about her shoulders, hanging in awkward snarls. She snatched up her silver comb and attacked a section of it. When he came in, he also was dressed, although she was quite aware he had worn nothing in bed. She pretended not to see him, and worked away at another section of her hair.

He merely stood and watched. She could not stand the silence. "Why do you do this to me?" she demanded. "Do this? You cry out for my help. I must come." "You need not. No one else comes." "You have ordered all else away. But I am your husband. I must come. But have no fear, lady. I have not molested you." "You are not a normal man." "Oh?" His black eyebrows arched in steep angles over dark eyes. "Is that what you want? You have only to say so. But as long as you are dreaming and cannot wake, that is a different thing." "I did not say--." ., stop. She was about to put her foot in it. She diverted herself instead to a snarl near the ends of her long hair. "You do not remember, do you?" Her eyes flickered over him before she could stop them. She turned her gaze away from him and began running the comb through the strands she had just untangled. "If you remembered, you would know that I have already apologized to you for my churlish behavior. But you don't know." Apology? She froze where she stood. "I know that you don't, Melisande. And because you do not, I must say it again. You did not deserve the way I treated you on our wedding night." "You were angry." "A man should not allow his anger to rule him. I did. And I was not justified. You were very frightened, and I should have seen that and taken it into account. You did not merely mean to spite me. I do not understand your fear, but I do know it is there. You are not merely a frightened, balky bride who simply needs to be tamed and taught. There is far more to this. You will need time to learn you are safe." "Who else have you told?" "Chrétien only." Chrétien. For all she knew, the man might gossip like a woman at the village well. She'd be in a dunking stool or tied to a stake before May Day. "Do not fear him, lady. He is our ally in this, for he suffers the same malady as you." "He cannot. He is a brave knight." "Ah. And you think yourself without courage? You are not. That I know of you, already. But we are all children in our sleep, and subject to a child's fears. Even were it not so, many a brave knight has seen things he would rather forget." "And Chrétien?" "He was there, and helpless, to watch his wife and baby daughter tortured to their deaths. I arrived too late to save them. He has lived with this for three years, and only now begins to find some measure of peace." Sudden moisture filled her eyes. She raised fingers to her mouth and whispered a quick prayer, wishing God would hear her. "It is not demons, Melisande, whatever is said by the Church. You have horrible memories, as he does. But not demons." "They speak to me." "The demons? Indeed. What do they say?"

"They tell me to kill you." "I am glad you have not heeded them." "Do not mock me." "I do not mock you, love. If demons held your soul, they would never allow you to say what you have just said. I think your fears visit you at night, as they do all of us, but you have far more to fear than I." "You know naught of demons." "I will not let the demons have you, Melisande." She jerked at the words, then tried to make it appear she had merely lodged the comb on a tangle. "You presume too much. Some things cannot be changed." "I will not let the priests have you, either." "Now you threaten your own soul." "Then let it be so. I do not stand alone in this. And remember, the priest is mine. He will condemn you no more than he has Chrétien." She wished she had the courage to tell him the rest. He thought her dreams were the end of her secrets. But it was only the top of many layers. Many, many layers. In the end, he would feel betrayed because she would not tell him. In the end, he would let them have her, or he would kill her, himself. With time, he would turn from her in complete repugnance and repudiate his vow. "Come, lady, let us go down to chapel." An odd sort of resignation filled her. Aye. with time he would turn on her. But there might be those small moments still to come, fragments of time with him she could cherish, hold fast in the secret reaches of her heart, against that time when he must do what he must do. As she stood, she allowed her hand to rest on his arm. She found comfort in him, despite that she had no right to seek it. What difference, after all, did it make if she did?

CHAPTER 14 Waking up next to him was like waking up in a lion's den with a sudden desire to be eaten. Melisande sneaked furtive peeks at the huge Norman who walked beside her, his arm linked in hers and holding her hand gently atop his arm. He caught her glance, as he always seemed to do, and laughed. But she could not stop, all the same. He was compelling. His charcoal eyes, that seemed black as an eagle's in the shadows, midnight blue by firelight, and the color of charcoal in the light of day, seemed always to brim with laughter behind their long, thick fringe of nearly straight black lashes. His lips had a sensuous curve about them that seemed an inseparable part of the deep thunderous roll of mirth that poured forth from him, and of the gravelly whisper of his voice that lured her inescapably to him. And his body? Was there any part of it she did not long to touch? She was not exactly sure she hadn't. She could not let him die. This perfect man must not die. Yet even now, he wore that damnable cloak. And even now, it poisoned him. She must find a way to save him. For all that he wore it constantly, he still seemed strong enough, but that would change quickly if the cloak had its insidious way. Although he did not mention them, she could tell the

headaches were becoming more than an occasional nuisance. She saw the minute squeezing of his eyes beneath his frown, and the odd blinking to clear vision that had momentarily blurred. And she saw the trembling that came to his hands, although he tried to hide it. If not stopped, the men would soon question his fitness. And they would be right to do so, for his mind would next become confused. That would probably be too late. His skin had not yet yellowed and he had no difficulties eating. For her mother, those things had come last, before she weakened and died. That still gave her hope. And he was a very big man. That would work in his favor, would it not? Would it not require a higher dose of the poison to kill him? And the way he wore the cloak, more often than not over his hauberk, surely would lessen the contact with his skin. And his habit of wearing leather gauntlets must help. Oh, please, God, let it be so. But she could not wait. There would also be times, when he might rub the fabric across his lips, or, as he had before, wipe the rim of a cup with it. Such an act could fell him quickly. The old manuscript said nothing about this, only that the poison would penetrate the skin in time. She had read it repeatedly, carefully translating the Latin. But she could never be sure of her translation, for she had not been properly taught, but had deciphered it on her own. The words might have other meanings she did not know. How could she be sure her understanding of the words was correct? She was not even sure how the words were pronounced. Then, before she had found her answer, Fyren had taken the books away from her. She had no idea where he had hidden them, and no hope of learning more from them. Nor had God answered her request for hot weather, but that did not surprise her. Mayhap she could persuade someone who was in good standing with God to make the prayer, instead. Mayhap the priest. But how, without telling him the truth? All she could hope for was that the Norman might snag the cursed thing on a tree limb, or fall into the mud. But despite his great size, he was a graceful man, rarely prone to accidental stumbling. Mayhap she could help that along. He might be graceful, but he already thought her a clumsy thing. Wine, perhaps? Or food? Greasy food. Very greasy food. A big greasy blotch, right in the middle of it. And in the meantime, the priest. Aye, there was a way. Again, her gaze flitted covertly in his direction. He was so very handsome. Were she an ordinary maiden, she would now have everything she had ever dreamed of, for no prince or king could be more comely, or more gentle and kind. None other would tolerate one such as she. That he had lost his patience with her at all had been her fault, not his. She had merely been hysterical, and unable to explain it to him. But what was she thinking? She was no ordinary maiden. She was consigned to Hell, and no great courage or will of his could change that. Again she sighed, and surprised herself for doing it. She had meant to keep all sign of emotion boxed securely inside her. But now she fought against herself and betrayed herself at the same time, both wanting and not wanting. Utterly at a loss. There was one thing, however, that must not be left unsaid. "Lord, I meant to thank you, yesterday." "Thank me?" "For your help to Gerard and his family." "He is mine, and I am his, Melisande. That is the way of fealty."

"But was it not also something else?" "And you refer to Chrétien's loss." "Aye." "It was that, too. I could not have such a thing on my conscience again." She tried not to look at him, but lost that battle. "Yet you could not have saved Chrétien's family." She saw the swallowing bob in his throat. He returned a sad smile for her effort. "I will never know that. It seems I did all that could be done, but mayhap I could have learned sooner, or fought harder." "Chrétien does not blame you. Why should you?" "Chrétien must deal with his own soul, and I must deal with mine. But I am glad we deduced Cyneric's deceit in time." "And Hugh?" "I have not heard." "Battles cannot always be won." "Ah. My little philosopher. We shall win, you and I." She allowed the corners of her mouth a small, almost bitter quirk. There was no word to convey her despair. Their peace was interrupted by noise from the bailey and the hurried clip of horses' hooves. A furtive glance at the Norman lord at her side caught his eye. "Word from Hugh," he said. "Or from Rufus." He burst into a rapid stride down the stairs. She sped along with him. "Good news, do you think?" "It has the sound of urgency about it, lady. I must go." He dashed over the steps two at a time. "Wait, I am coming." Still running, he glanced back, his heavy black brows raising in sharp arches over questioning eyes. "I may be needed," she explained. "Someone may be hurt." "Then, come. Hurry." She needed no prodding. Urgency permeated the air like the acrid scent of burning flesh. Her slippers skimmed the steps and rounded the bend in the stairs as if flying, then down to the dais. Knights poured in the outer door to the great aisled hall. The Norman's hand flew instinctively to his sword before relaxing the moment he was assured the men were his own. Chrétien led the group that rushed toward the lord. "Alain! It is Robert! He was set upon by Anwealda before he reached Hugh's motte!" "The situation?" "Robert is hurt, as are several others. Four men are dead. The others remain where they are, to protect the wounded who cannot be moved. Only one rider has come." "Then we go, immediately." "They mean to draw you out, Alain." "Well, they succeed. Without Gerard here, there is none else to go. Someone must remain, but not I." "Then send for Gerard, lord," said Melisande, then she stepped back, gasped at her own audacity. What would he do to a woman who dared meddle in men's business?" Chrétien nodded sharply. "Aye, Alain. Gerard will come despite his losses. His threat is now so small. Thomas to remain here, and I to ride out with you."

Alain glanced about, first to the lady he called wife who had been too bold, then from Chrétien to Thomas. "Thomas?" he asked. "A good plan, lord. If Anwealda was too much for Robert, then he outnumbers you as well, so you cannot ride alone. And Hugh cannot come to your aid without seriously threatening the new motte. Send for Gerard." "And what of Rufus? Is his position known, yet?" "Last heard, he still comes through Wensleydale. None know how far he has progressed." "So be it, then. Chrétien, call the knights to horse. My thanks to you, lady. An excellent plan, though I did promise Gerard not to disturb him." "Take me," she said, again shocking herself at her effrontery. "We go to battle, lady." "Aye. You have wounded men, and may have more. I will be needed." She gripped her hands and pleaded with her eyes. His dark eyes narrowed behind black lashes, piercing her. Her heart flopped around, out of control. But she met his gaze without faltering. He would not do it. She knew he wouldn't. Normans did not allow their women the honor of dangerous deeds. "Gather what you need, then, and make haste. Bring a warm cloak. If you are lucky, you will spend tonight within Hugh's holding. If you are not, you will be very cold." She had no voice to reply. The best she managed was a quick bob of her head as she spun about and raced toward the kitchen. This was more than just aid to the wounded. This might be her chance to pry the accursed mantle away from the stubborn Norman. "Nelda!" she shouted as she ran. "Fetch my things. I go with the lord to aid the wounded." The old woman's eyes grew huge and round. "You cannot, lady. It-- you must not." "Aye, I can. The lord says I may, and I am needed. Hurry!" Melisande was always prepared to treat the injured. Her preparations for the siege had left adequate supplies already at hand, organized and ready to use. Nelda had only to see them packed on the horses. She ran back to her chamber, yanked her warmest cloak from its peg, tied on wool stockings, and pulled light boots on her feet. Then she raced back down the stairs to join the Norman lord and his knights. One more thing. Melisande scurried across the bailey to the chapel, where she found Father Hardouin sweeping. The priest's eyebrows raised at her untimely appearance. "Father, I must have your help." She gasped to catch her breath. "Aye, my child? Is it your wedded state?" "Nay. I mean, well, nay, it is not. It is that we go to rescue the injured knights who left yesterday, and we must have dry, hot weather." "We must?" "Aye, we must. It is the roads, you see. They are still muddy from too much rain, and the horses will mire down." "I had not thought we have had so much rain, lately." "Well, not here, so much, but higher in the fells, it rains much more. You must, father. We must get there in time!" "Well--"

"And the cotters and villeins, too, father. The time for rain is past. Now their crops need the sun, and much of it. We do not get enough sun ofttimes, you see, because of the fells, and the crops will not ripen." Father Hardouin folded his hands patiently. Mayhap he had heard of her malady. Believed her head wrongly touched. "Well, child, I will pray for hot weather for you, if that is what you wish, but--" "Thank you, father. I must hurry now. The lord awaits me." She turned to run, but Father Hardouin snagged her arm. "The lord takes you with him? Is that not dangerous?" "Oh, nay, father. It is perfectly safe. Else, he would not take me at all. Thank you, father. Do not forget!" "I will not forget." "And right away, father!" "Of course." She sped away, wondering what the penance was for lying to a priest. It could not be significant, compared to her other sins. *** "Alain, you should not do this." Chrétien's brown eyes were wide beneath his worried brow. "I think I must. There is something about her, and I am not sure what, that needs this. I know the risk is great. But I think Dougal is gone north, as we guessed before. There is only Anwealda for threat." "How will you protect her, yet fight if we are attacked? Beyond the walls of the castle, we are all at risk. Alain, if she should be captured, Rufus's cause could be lost. Will you sacrifice her then? I think you will not." "I cannot tell you why I believe this, Chrétien. Mayhap if she talks with you as I have asked, you also will see." The furrows of Chrétien's worried frown deepened, but he said no more. They did often disagree, but not to such depth. But Alain knew how badly the wounded men would need the lady's help, and knew also her need to give it to them. Aye, she would be greatly risked. Fear tightened his throat at the thought. His mind threw at him images of Heloise and her bloody body lying across that of her child, as he had last seen her. And he saw Gerard's lovely wife, Lynet, remembered her face intent on her husband's as she meted out that precise, silent count that had led to Cyneric's death and her rescue. If her cooperation, her faith in her husband, had been anything less than perfect, she would have been the one who died, not Cyneric. He wanted that sort of love, as did Melisande. Never had she said as much, but he knew it. Melisande was a woman out of her time, extraordinary. For all her fears, she would give her life as bravely as any knight. What right did he have to make her a mouse in a corner, a simpering lady embroidering linens for the altar? A splendid grey courser was brought out for her, a long-legged creature, fine of bone and high in spirit. A horse to match his exquisite lady, vigorous enough for the ride, faster than the knights' heavier chargers. Yet not sturdy enough to defend against a mightier beast. And the lady's saddle did not ride as high as those of the knights, to keep her safe within it. It was an animal neither suited to nor equipped for battle. He began to have doubts. But he had given his word.

He assisted her into the saddle, knowing his help to be unnecessary, but she did not resist. Her heavy green mantle flowed around her, lapping over the provisions stored behind her saddle in leather pouches. Pride and excitement etched deeply into her solemn face. But what if she found herself immersed in a real battle? She would not flee from danger. Like Lynet, she would do what she must do, willingly. His paradoxical lady had more courage than many a man he had known. And she was no stranger to pain and tragedy. He raised his arm and launched the march. The knights rode down the sloping bailey, through the gate house and the village below. Without a word, the Norman knights positioned themselves around their lady. Alain gave over the forward command to Chrétien, who rode with Robert's messenger, then fell back to ride awhile beside the lady. She looked wary, as if she expected him to suddenly change his mind and order her back. To that, he smiled. Surely she did not know the way his heart tripped over itself with fear for her, but she could not help but know his men thought him demented to risk his wife and future bearer of his heir in such a way. But they could not understand. They did not see the deep wounds in her soul he saw, that could not heal without trust. And he must give her his trust and confidence, more deeply and truly than he had ever thought possible, before she could begin to give it back. "Have you been about the countryside much, lady?" he asked her, noticing that her eyes roamed eagerly to search about the valley. "Not as a common thing, lord. I went about more when I was younger. But I have my responsibilities, now." Aye, she did. He had learned from Thomas that Melisande had been seeing to the household matters for several years, long before her mother's death. Her mother had taken to her bed and only rarely risen from it for years before she actually died, although none knew the nature of her illness. He wondered if Melisande's strength was of her own making, or the result of the circumstances into which she had been forced. Melisande's hand pointed toward the dark fell to their left. "Here you have Arkle's beck, that flows from the fell beyond the castle," she told him. "And Arkle's holding, but a little ways beyond." But a short way farther, she pointed again, across the valley. "Thorkel's holding, and his beck," she said. She knew enough of the territory to be a reasonable guide. As they rode up through the Vale of Eden, she pointed to him small, narrow valleys with their becks that fed into the roundbottomed Eden Valley. A cavern. A cliff face she called Freya's Hair, for its strange vertical rock, like stringy pillars. Where the good pasture was, or swampy ground. He watched her ride, hair flying to the side with the wind, her face reflecting an oddly somber joy. More happiness than he had seen before. Still, it was not a smile. He wondered at how her delicately curving lips might form one. Mayhap just at their corners? Or broad and open? Chrétien fell back next to his lord while the columns of knights rode on. "Trouble," he said. "What?" "Our little track of a path takes us around the bend. Anwealda almost caught us on such a one, before." "How much farther?" "Just beyond." "Lady, do you know this place?" "Aye."

"What think you?" "If Anwealda chooses an ambush, it could be a good place, for he could hide safely, even after your first men come into sight. He is secretive and sly. Ambush would be his way. But he might do better to wait until we reach the wounded men and are occupied with their care." "Aye, I do see that," agreed Chrétien. "If that place worked once, why not use it again?" "Save that Robert has left men there to guard them, who would increase our numbers." Chrétien frowned. "If they have not been attacked again." "Can we circle them, as we did before, and approach from their rear?" "Nay," she said. "There is no usable track that would not take us hours away from our path. Nor do we know where to find them." "Then we ride as if we suspect naught. We have no choice. But let us be prepared." The word passed through the knights quickly, and they held their lances ready for action. Now he wished he had not let his lady come with them. But she knew his thoughts, and her blue eyes flashed fire. She would defy him if she thought she must. She always would, not merely now. He'd best get used to it. The road wandered alongside a deceptively peaceful valley, bright with young green crops, punctuated here and there with a lone croft or Norse cowshed. Below, the Eden River flowed on, a meandering path across the undulating valley floor. They rode past the curve of the hillside, their eyes scanning every tree or rock large enough to hide horse or man. Nothing moved but the villeins in their rocky fields, who stopped to watch them pass. Alain motioned to Chrétien to set an outrider to the road ahead. He avoided the furtive glances at the lady who rode beside him, whose composure had not faltered. But her eyes, like theirs, scrutinized everything about her surroundings. The lone outrider again reached a bend that obscured their sight, and cautiously rode around it. He disappeared, and Alain stood high in his stirrups, watching. Then the rider returned to the bend where they could see him, and motioned. Alain spurred his white mount. The knights urged their horses onward. "Nay!" Chrétien shouted, and his horse balked at the jerked reins. "That is not our man!" "Aye, I see it. The same horse, same crimson cloak. But not our man. Move on as if we suspect nothing. Chrétien, take my lady to our rear." "You have let me come this far, and I am needed." For a fleeting moment, he eyed her. "You will be needed, lady, but not to battle. Chrétien, see to her. Bind her if you must." "Nay, Chrétien, you must--" Alain turned hard eyes on to her. "Do not disobey me, lady. The price to me is too high." Chrétien seized her wrist and gave the lady his smile, assurance that all would be well. With silent gestures, he signaled the men who would form her guard. Alain, satisfied that she would be protected, rode his white stallion to the fore to lead the force around the hill. *** "Chrétien, you cannot abandon him. They will kill him!" "What do you know, lady? What have you not told us?" "Naught, save that he must not die. Do not waste your time with me when he needs your aid!" "Nay, lady. He is a knight, and he is my lord. I did not approve of your coming, but I will not leave you defenseless. You will do as he asks, or I will bind you."

His gentle gaze hardened. She must concede. They were men, and men knew of war. She had been foolish to come, for she threatened them with her potential for capture. "Give me your word, lady, or I will not loose you." "Only do not let him die, Chrétien. I have a bargain with God!" She gasped, suddenly realizing she had betrayed herself. "A bargain with God, lady? Over the lord's safety? Tell me of this." "I cannot." She chewed at her lip, prayed he would ask no more. "Why, then?" "Please. I cannot say." "But you seek him no harm?" "Nay." "Then you may keep your secret with God. But you must also give me your word you will stay out of the fray. He is a brave knight, and he does not need a lady to defend him." "Aye," she said. "But you must leave me and go to him if he needs you." Ahead, the clash began. Shouts, ringing metal, screams of rage or pain. Four Norman knights fell back to her side, their lances and swords ready. "Nay!" she shouted. "To the fray! I am safe!" But she had been sighted. One large Saxon burst forth from the melee, sliced alongside the Normans instead of fighting head on, and surged toward the ring of Norman knights surrounding her. Anwealda. She saw him, the great blond giant in his bright hauberk of shiny discs. Even from here, she could see the fierce gleam in his eyes and knew he had spotted his prize. She'd been a fool. She was more a danger to the Norman as a captive than dead.

CHAPTER 15 Anwealda bolted past the startled Norman vanguard that swiped at him as he barreled toward her. The Normans that swarmed about her bristled like a hedgehog with their great lances. She pulled her dagger, it being all she had. Puny and feeble. Anwealda drove his charger closer. As the giant Saxon lunged for her, Chrétien yanked her from the courser's saddle, out of Anwealda's reach. A Norman knight's lance pierced the chest of the Saxon's mount. The horse folded on its forelegs, and threw the Saxon forward onto the dusty road bed. Anwealda landed hard on his great arms, rolled, and stood, drawing his sword as the Normans closed about him, dodged lances as a red-haired Scot drove his war horse around the pack of Normans. Anwealda leapt and grabbed the warrior's extended arm, throwing himself up behind the saddle as the Scot galloped down the narrow dirt road, away from the fray. The melee swirled ahead of them as the Normans pushed the offensive back on the perplexed Scots and Saxons. Anwealda's hasty gamble had failed. They wheeled and fled up the steep slope, scattering as they rode. "They've broken! After them!" cried a Norman knight. "Nay. We have other business." The Norman lord called back his men and assessed their state. Melisande saw few wounds, none dead, save Saxons and Scots.

"I know this man," she said, leaning down to one as he lay helplessly in the dirt, dying. An arrogant man, one she liked little. Still she could not deny him a final kindness. Chrétien released her and she slid to the ground, knelt at the slashed body. "You are a traitor, lady," the man said through clenched teeth, then fell silent, his body limp. Aye, she often felt that way. The Normans were not her people. She closed the Saxon's eyes. "Nay, lady, you are not," said another, who now pushed himself off the ground to sit, helped by one of Alain's men. She did not know his name. "'Twas Anwealda who rose against you." "The lady had no choice," said the Norman lord, "save to watch the death of her people. Bring this man with us. Put him in one of the carts." Melisande gave the Saxon a cloth to hold against the slash across his chest. It stained the cloth with bright color, but was not deep. She would stitch it later. The Norman lord's gaze fixed on her, a sharp, assessing look in his formidable face. He turned and signaled to his men to remount. Once more, Anwealda had slipped their grasp. Melisande hurried after him as he strode toward his charger. "I am sorry, lord. I should not have asked to come." "You apologize? The decision was mine, lady. I do not regret it." "But I caused distraction." The Norman grinned wickedly, baring beautiful white teeth that gave him a ferocity that she would expect in a hungry wolf. "Aye, you did. Anwealda's distraction. He made a grave mistake to try to seize you. He saw an opportunity, and acted quickly, but did not think of its cost. And I now know something of him. He is too impulsive." "If Chrétien had not pulled me away, he might have succeeded." The lord lifted her into her saddle. "Aye. He caught us off our guard with his bold move. But Chrétien is also quick. He saw the plan and thwarted it. Nay, lady, you were a boon to us. It is usually a mistake to divide one's forces in the midst of a battle. It was a mistake for Anwealda. If he had held his men together, we might not have prevailed." "But you will not take me again." The rumble in his chest burst forth as a great chuckle. "Likely not. I do not think I could survive the fright again." "Nor I," said Chrétien, who did not smile or laugh, but clucked at his mount and spurred ahead to the lead. "We are not far now from where the men await us," the lord said, and he reached out, took her hand and gave it a squeeze. "But we are not far from the new motte, lord. Why did they not go on there?" "The messenger said they meant to try, but had to seek a defensible place to protect those who could not travel." "Do you not fear that Anwealda has already attacked them?" "Aye. Most likely, he has." "Then you do not expect to find them alive." He shook his head. "They should have tried to make for Hugh's motte. It is their love for Robert that makes them take such a foolish risk." "Why did Hugh not come to their aid?" "He is not strong enough. Anwealda would have caught Hugh outside his defenses, and then, the motte, itself. We cannot risk all for those who fall in battle." "I wonder, will the time come when men no longer fight over this land?"

"Nay." "Never?" "Men have always fought, lady. It is their nature." She fell silent. It was not what she wished to hear. Somehow, she had hoped he would say there would be an end to the warring, that men might stop stealing from each other, their lands and people, their women. She had hoped to hear that her sacrifice might have some meaning. But the Norman did not see it in his future. If some now lived because of her choice, others would die for it. The one thing of value from what she had done was that the Norman lord was a far more able and caring administrator than Fyren had been, and had none of the earl's extreme cruelty. She did not regret her choice. God's choice. She had merely cooperated. Mayhap God had heard her plea, after all. She was still alive, and as long as she lived, and the lord, as well, she had a chance to wrest the cloak from him. If God had chosen this man, surely He would not let him die while he was so badly needed. The knights and their supplies rode on, following Robert's messenger. Melisande tried to keep her eyes from flitting in the direction of the Norman lord. All her life, she had hidden her thoughts, yet this man seemed always to break beneath the surface and divine what she concealed. She did not want to trust him. To trust him was to bring on her death, and with that, his own. "Beyond this bend," he said, an interpolation of the signals sent to him from the outrider. She nodded, and studied the Saxon prisoner who rode behind her in a cart. The cloth she had given him was soaked with blood, but he fared reasonably well. The three wounded Normans still rode their horses, and managed well enough. The outrider disappeared around that bend in the road, then came flying back, kicking his spurs into the flanks of his mount, and leaning low to its racing body. At the vanguard, he reined up, hard. The Norman lord rode up beside him. "They're gone, lord. Save for a few dead Scots, they're all gone. Not even a horse." "Another trap, Alain?" guessed Chrétien. "Hostages, mayhap." Melisande's heart lurched. "Mayhap they made it to the motte." "Mayhap, lady," said Chrétien. But she could see he had little hope of it, nor did the lord. The lord motioned his troop forward. "The blow we have already struck to Anwealda may be damaging enough to keep him from striking again. But he has probably hit here first, where the Norman forces are weakest." "Would Robert command a high ransom?" she asked, then saw the covert apprehension in the Norman's eyes. "Aye. He is a second son, but his brother is not well." They reached the ground where the battle had been fought, when the messenger pointed excitedly to the rocky ledge above. The Norman shook his head and watched as two men scrambled up the steep slope to the sheltered area. They climbed over a rock shelf and disappeared behind it. Within minutes, they reappeared, waving wildly, and gesturing with their hands. "Up here, lord. Robert lives." She bolted out of the courser's saddle and yanked at the thongs that tied on the pouches. Others tore up the steep slope, carrying water and food, blankets, supplies. The Norman lord grabbed her pouches, tossed them over his shoulders, and dashed up the rocky slope ahead of

her. She was no stranger to the jagged fells where they climbed. Only where she was not tall enough to grasp the next hand-hold did the Norman need to reach behind to help her up. At the outcropping, a narrow band of grey limestone had worn away into a low cavern. Near the entrance lay five bodies, shrouded in their cloaks. Beyond, those who protected the wounded heartily slapped the backs of their rescuing comrades. And stared open-mouthed when they saw the lady in their midst. "Where is Robert?" asked Melisande, to shake off the intensity of their astonishment. "Here, lady." Robert's voice, yet weak, tenuous. "Where are the others?" asked the lord, hurrying to him. "I have sent ahead any who could go, Alain." Robert paused, taking a ragged, gasping breath. "The Saxons took the other horses, so I had little choice. I meant to make it look as if all had gone." He was a Norman knight. He would think of the hale first. "Then, let us hope you were right. Likely, Anwealda was fooled." In the dim cavern, only the barest outline of the wounded men could be seen. Melisande knelt beside Robert, frustrated. "I cannot see to tend them, lord," she said. "'Tis as well, lady," Robert replied. In spite of his pain, the sweet tone she knew of his voice still lingered. "You cannot save me." Behind her, a flint scraped, bringing the smoldering, charcoal scent of tinder. A reed torch flared, then another. Robert, his tunic soaked in blood, lay to one side so he could cough out the blood in his lungs. He was probably right. She lifted his tunic, stiff from dried blood, and pulled torn fabric away from the skin about the wound. It was too late to stitch it. And if it had turned putrid, she could do nothing. "It is not as deep as I first feared," she said. "The lung must be punctured, yet it already shows signs of healing." The Norman lord knelt beside Robert while she worked. "Such a wound would usually kill, Robert. Was the man a weakling?" "Aye, once I removed his head." Robert's weak smile twitched wickedly. "He must not be moved just yet, lord," she said, and packed fresh linen to the wound. "Nor can we stay here," said Chrétien, as he bent over another knight. The man moaned at his touch. Melisande rummaged in her pouches for fresh bandages and her salve. "You do not continue to cough up blood, I see. The blood here is old. And you breathe passably well." "Aye. It is not the worst way to die, I'll wager." "I do not think you will die, Robert. Your ribs are broken, and I cannot stitch the skin, and but your lung may be healing as we speak. If we can just keep you still for a day or two." "But you cannot," Robert protested, still forcing a smile. "It is too dangerous to stay here. Alain, if Anwealda has any sense, he will hit at your center, now that you are away." "Aye, he may do that. But Cyneric is dead, by Gerard's hand, and his men who have survived have submitted to me. Gerard comes north to aid Thomas, while Wallis watches the south. Anwealda has just taken another blow, and only barely escaped us. Know you anything of Dougal?" "None of him, nor his men. He must have pulled north to Carlisle." Melisande bound Robert's chest, giving him scant room to breath, then moved on to the next man, whom Chrétien tended. She looked up at Chrétien, and knew he thought the same as she. The man would not survive. She gave the knight a kind caress, to which he did not respond. She moved on. The next two, she thought had a chance, if they could reach safety and good care, yet

would likely die if she moved him. A dilemma. Robert also might die if they moved him, for the broken ribs lodged dangerously against his lung. Yet, if they could carry him on a litter, he might survive. Aye, that might do it. Not the bonejarring ride of a cart. Certainly, not on horseback. If only she had some way of lifting the ribs away from the lung, so that he did not risk further puncture of his lungs. Mayhap fastening them to a board of sorts. But she did not have such skill. Quietly, Melisande continued. But merely touching each man, cleaning their wounds, and seeing them warmly wrapped and given water was all she could do. Sadly, she realized she had dreamt of great miracles, not these simple acts of bringing comfort. She returned to the front of the cavern where Robert lay. His lord helped him drink from a horn. "What think you, lady?" "Give us a little time, lord. It is but a few miles farther to Hugh's motte, is it not?" "Aye." "Robert may go if carried by litter, and three more may survive better if they are carried, than if they remain here. One, I cannot tell. One other will not." "If we remain, will he live?" "I think not. But I cannot leave him alone." The Norman lord rose from his place. "Take me to him." He knelt beside his man, and his huge hand caressed the knight's forehead. "You have been with me a long time, Ivo." The knight's voice was barely more than a rattle. "We will not leave you." "Nay. Go." "We will stay, Ivo." "Save the others." "Aye. I send them on to the new motte." "Go. Only come back to bury me, lord." He would not leave his man to die alone. She knew that, already. All that he had said of not sacrificing the hale for the injured was belied by his actions this day. And she would stay with him, as well. "We will stay. Lady, you will go with Chrétien. See to those who survive." "Nay, lord, I--" "That is why you came. You must give your aid and comfort to those who might live because of it." But she also had come to protect him from the viciousness Fyren had infused into the purple cloak. If he stayed, he would surely wrap himself in it for warmth while it continued its slow, insidious killing. "Your blessing, lord. I die now." Whether Ivo willed it to happen, or it just did, she could not tell. As his life slipped away, the Norman lord committed the knight's soul to God, and closed the man's eyelids. "It is more than some receive on a battlefield," he said, as if that somehow explained it to her. Below on the road, knights waited with the war horses, her long-legged courser, and the carts with their supplies. She called for the assembly of litters to bring the dead down from the cave to the carts and carry the living to the motte. Both joy and sadness infected the troop as it moved toward the motte at the pace of the men who walked and carried the litters. Melisande gave her courser to the Saxon because of its gentle

gait, and walked beside Robert. Only when she was persuaded his wounds would not reopen did she dare succumb to the lord's request and ride behind his saddle on the great white stallion. The day had warmed. Mayhap because of the priest's prayers. "Could you not dispense with that cloak for a while, lord?" "Dispense with it? Why?" "I do not like it." "So you have said. But I cannot fathom that." "It does not become you." "Does it not?" "It makes you look pale as a maid. And it is too short. It was made for a woman, not a large man." "Then it becomes me well, for I am not one to wear my garments to drag in the mud." "It smells, lord. Do you not feel the chalkiness of the dye? It makes me want to sneeze." "Ah, is that it? Well, the day is warm enough." He unfastened the brooch and draped the cloak over his horse in front of the high cantle of his saddle, and Melisande sighed her relief. Grateful that she did not have to press her nose into the evil thing, she wrapped her arms around his waist, feeling his breathing beneath his mail. For a while she daydreamed of this Norman lord, this man, his lips descending to claim hers. He held her, carried her to his bed, caressed her... Ah, just for now, she could pretend. The future would come soon enough. Why let fear of it destroy the pleasure she had now? "I do not understand why a lady would wish to press her cheek against chain mail," he said. "I do not." "You do." "Well, mayhap I am a little tired." His deep-throated chuckle felt like the rumbling purring of her great red tabby, and he lapped his hand over hers. Let him laugh. It felt good against her hands. *** They saw the new motte across the valley long before they reached it. Located on a natural low hill, its new palisade circled the old manor and the new mound atop the hill, to dominate the valley surrounding it. Great piles of logs lay nearby, the materials for the tower that would soon rise in its midst. Melisande looked back over her shoulder. The Saxon still rode the courser, though he looked ready to fall. Pain etched Robert's face, but she saw no fresh blood on his windings. "The Saxon must rest," she said to the Norman lord, who turned to see the man wavering in the saddle. "Aye. "Tis but a little way." The lord pointed to a knight, who rode up next to the Saxon and steadied him. Melisande breathed out a sigh, glad they had not moved him to a jarring cart. The lord had not said for what purpose he wanted the Saxon, but she guessed he meant to divine Anwealda's plans. But Anwealda had always been as secretive as Fyren, and probably had not shared them with his men. The diabolic Saxon now thought of himself as inheritor of Fyren's schemes, and even lord in the dead earl's place. Had the Normans not come when Fyren died, Melisande's future would have been limited to marriage to that hated man, or death, for Anwealda would not have allowed her to hold the castle alone.

But in that case, Fyren would not have died. Melisande shuddered, as if a chill wind had suddenly risen and frozen her, soul and all. She clung more tightly to the Norman. The heavy log gate swung open to admit the Norman and his contingent, and Hugh, with his arm still in its sling, hurried forth to greet them. The lord reached around and lowered Melisande from her place behind his saddle, then jumped down to greet Hugh with great slaps on the back. "Lord, it is good to see you, --and the lady. But I am surprised. Is it not--" "Aye," answered the lord, cutting in. "She has assisted us in surprising ways. She has come along to attend the injured. She has an unusual skill." Melisande did not think of herself that way. She had done nothing uncommon. Her salve was comforting, and seemed even to prevent festering. But she had not saved the dying, nor improved the living. Where was skill in that? Still, she said nothing, beyond accepting Hugh's gracious hospitality. "There is little of luxury here, lady," Hugh said, and his brows raised slightly as they wrinkled. "Yet the bed in the chamber is good." "My thanks, but I have no need of luxury. The bed is better used for Robert, for he must be kept still, lest the wound open again, or the ribs prick his lungs." "It shall be, then," Hugh declared, and motioned to have Robert taken into the chamber. Melisande followed to see Robert settled. With better light, she studied the wound across the side of Robert's chest more thoroughly, and washed it clean of dried blood. The imprint of the mail dug deeply into in his skin around the great slash. By feel, she determined that his ribs indeed indented where the blow had struck. If there were only some way of lifting them back into place. She sighed. There were a lot of things she wished she could do. Mayhap many of them were actually possible, if she only knew how. But she was no surgeon. She left the chamber to find the other wounded knights. The Saxon was weak from loss of blood. She cleaned his wound and stitched it with horsehair, then gave him a potion for his pain. Save for those injured just today, the knights had already gone past the time when the wounds could be stitched, and she could only hope for proud flesh to form safely. "What think you, lady?" asked the lord. So absorbed had she been in her thoughts and her task, she had not heard him come up behind her. She washed her hands in a basin, then dried them on a rough towel before leading the lord away, out of the hall. "All will heal, if they do not fester. It is Robert who worries me," she replied at last. "He may live. But the wound will cripple him." "How so? I had thought he might die, but if he lives, why would he be crippled?" "The ribs will heal wrongly. The mail no doubt saved his life, but it also turned the sword into a hammer. His ribs are caved in to his lungs, broken rather neatly about a knuckle's length away from the wound on both sides. If they heal that way, he will never be able to breathe deeply without great pain, or risk of puncture to his lungs." "His father wants him home. Mayhap it is best." "Even at home a man must defend what is his. You have said yourself men will always war against other men." "Yet, what else can be done?"

"I know not. If only I could go beneath his ribs and lift them back into place. I pictured something in my mind, mayhap like the curved bone needle I use for sewing heavy cloth or hides-- something that might draw a length of sinew or thread beneath the bone, that then could be pulled upward. But I do not know how to do it." "If you did, what would hold it in place while it healed?" "Mayhap the sinew could be tied to a small, flat board? Mayhap a board with holes drilled in it at the right spots, and the sinew pulled through the board? If it happened the way I imagine it, the ribs would be pulled up, and held in place by the board." "Would you try it, then?" "I know not. I do not know enough to decide." "Let us talk with Robert." She gave a cautious, solemn nod. It was a fantasy, not a real thing. She knew nothing of the tissue beneath the ribs, or whether her efforts might cause more harm. Once again in the bed chamber behind the dais, the Norman lord woke Robert, who had been dozing fretfully. "We have an idea, Robert, and we must ask you about it." Robert gave a sleepy grunt, and attempted to roll to his back, but Melisande stopped him. "The lady thinks your injury will cripple you if it is not repaired properly." "Aye, I have no doubt. A man is not much if he cannot breathe well." "Tell him," the Norman said. Melisande explained her thoughts, carefully including all the envisioned drawbacks. "If you open the wound, can you see what you need to do?" "I would not know until I did it. And I could not stitch it closed. You could bleed to death. But I fear accidentally puncturing your lung more." "It was already punctured and is healing." "Mayhap if it is re-opened, it would not heal again. And I cannot figure out how I could fasten the sinew to the board. I think it is all too clumsy, and will do more harm than good." "I would have you do it, anyway." "I will think some more on it." The Norman lord followed her from the chamber, and walked beside her through the bailey of the old fort. He kept his silence as they walked. Melisande engrossed herself in the puzzle. She could envision the sinews passing through the board and tying, to brace the ribs against the flat board. But how could she get the sinews through the board without dangerously disrupting the wound? And how would she know where to place the holes? They could not be done randomly. It must be precisely prepared, ahead of her surgery. "I could lay a cloth onto the wound area, and mark on it where I want the holes and the ribs to be. Mayhap a carpenter could make the board and the holes where I want them." "Shall I find someone?" "There are other problems. This will be very painful. There is an herb, wild lettuce, that will make him sleep, but I have only a little of it left. Nor can it be found this time of year. Yet if he moves, anything could go wrong, and at the least, I will not be able to do it." "We must hold him still, then." "You still do not see. I am no surgeon. There is too much I do not know. I know not if the lungs are connected to the ribs, nor what sort of tissue might lie between the two. Or if I prick his lungs, will the air leak out?" "Do you want me to do it instead, then?"

Aye, she did. She wanted it done by any but her. But she studied his large, thick-fingered hands and wondered if he had ever held a needle in them. "If it were me instead of you, Melisande, would it be you urging me to act?" Aye. She would. "You ask too much of me, lord." "Aye, I know. But it means much to me. Robert is not merely my knight, but my friend, as well. I cannot willingly consign him to the fate of a cripple. I know him. He would rather be dead." "But he puts his death on my hands." "Aye." How could she do it? How could she not?

CHAPTER 16 "Robert must decide," she said. She looked so frightened, but more as if she feared what would happen to Robert than herself. "Robert has decided," he replied. "He will put himself in your hands." "And if I fail you, lord?" "You do not fail me. Even if you decide you cannot do it. I cannot choose this for you." Melisande fell silent, and walked with her arms folded over her chest. He kept his peace, walking with her, let her think. Although she had a talent for healing, he had more faith in her than she had in herself. But the greatest of talent would not insure success. Aye, he knew he asked too much of her. "I will need a carpenter. One with great skill is not needed. Merely one who can plane a slat thin and smooth, and drill holes exactly where I need them." "I shall find you one." "And fine linen for bandages. We have almost exhausted what we brought. And I must have a small, curved needle, very fine." Alain grinned and drew her into his arms for a hurried kiss. Melisande's round blue eyes grew rounder with her astonishment. Well, she would have to become accustomed to his affectionate ways, for he had no intention of changing them. "You shall have it all." "We must hurry. The bones have already begun to knit. It must be now, or not at all." "Hugh!" he shouted. Hugh came running. *** She had all she asked for. Melisande wiped her tools and laid them out on a clean linen cloth as she observed her sleeping patient. The wild lettuce syrup was working well. Cloths were spread out across the clean linen sheets. The Norman lord and three others stood aside to hold him, for she knew he would struggle at first. She needed only to start. She said a hurried prayer. If God did not favor her, mayhap Robert had His ear, and she prayed for him, not for herself. Melisande began by probing about the wound. Her patient stirred. It would get worse. With her sharp knife, she cut into the bruised skin beside the wound alongside the first broken rib, and

waited as the men calmed him, held him still. Through the slit, she probed for the bone and felt the break. But it lay amidst a mass of mangled, unidentifiable tissue. This would be harder than she had imagined. Her heart pounded a rapid rhythm. As the Norman lord spoke soothing words to Robert, the lullaby of his voice calmed her as well. She found the point where she thought the bone might be easiest to lift. Robert trembled as she slipped the needle into the wound, then went still. Anxiously, she caught the lord's gaze. He nodded solemnly for her to continue. She found the rib, and deftly worked the needle beneath it and out the other side, pulling the sinew through and leaving it to dangle. Its opposite side, she did the same way. Two more ribs to go. Blood oozed. She sopped it up with a clean cloth, then sought another from Robert's squire who stood by. What worried her most, she realized as she repeated the steps on another rib, was the possibility of infection. The sinew would have to remain beneath the bone, inside the body, yet extend outside the skin so that it could fasten to the rigid board. She didn't know what would happen, then. Would the skin grow to the sinew, or fester around it? Would it leave a hole, or would it close up as an ordinary wound would? How long should she leave it in place? If not long enough, would the bone fail to knit properly? If too long, would they be unable to remove the sinew without cutting it out? If they left it entirely, what? She continued to work, gently easing the small bone needle beneath and around each rib, then threading the long strips of sinew through their corresponding holes in the pad of linen and the slat above it. She frowned. "There is no place to set this," she said. "I cannot have it tugging against the strings until I am ready." "I will hold it," said the squire. The boy stood by Robert's opposite side and held the slat precisely where she wanted it, moving it slightly when she signaled to him. Soon, she had worked her sinews beneath both ends of the third rib. Now came the test. She pulled the sinew strings through the board until the board fit flush with Robert's skin. Then she gradually tightened the first pair, easing the bones back where she thought they belonged, gauging by the amount of sinew she could pull through. She tied each pair of strings together above the board. The next rib, then the third. She gently eased the right side up to where it ought to be. Then the left side. But it would not come. She pulled harder. Yet, it would not budge. "What is wrong?" asked the lord. "This one will not lift," she replied. "But why?" "Mayhap, you should raise the other side first," said Alain. "Aye. As it was cut by a sword, mayhap the bone is cut at an angle. Show me the way the sword would have hit him." The lord used the side of his hand to demonstrate the angle. "Then the left side must be raised first. But I have already raised the right. I will have to push it down again. Mayhap but a tiny bit will do the job." The lord bit at his lip. "Do it," he said. Melisande dragged in a long, hard breath, and worked her finger beneath the board. She pressed gently. Robert stiffened and cried out. She watched the lord stroke his huge hand over Robert's brow and speak gentle words in his low, quiet voice.

She knew that hand. Knew the comforting of his voice. For all that she remembered none of it, she knew it, all the same, for it was the same voice that brought her peace at night. And now it gave her courage when she would have flagged. Again she breathed deeply to steady her hand and resumed the fearful tugging. The left side of the rib eased into place, and the right followed, as smoothly as if it had all been intended that way. She tied the strings together on the back side of the wooden slat. It was done. She sat back, and at last expelled the great gulp she had held in her lungs. "Finished?" "Aye. Now, he must not be allowed to move. Especially, he must not roll." "I will see that someone stays with him," said Hugh. "Good. Mayhap place pillows to his back, as well. He has not bled as badly as I expected, but place cloths around him, anyway. And keep him warm." She stood and walked to the little table that had been brought into the chamber, and washed her hands in the basin while she continued her instructions. Blood streaked and spotted over her kirtle, and she daubed ineffectively at the stains, merely weakening them to pale pink smudges. But it was a plain grey one that served well for such occasions. "Come, lady," said the lord. "I am told a fine supper awaits us in the hall." His arm encircled her waist and drew her to his side. She leaned for a moment against him. And she could not help wondering why, if he was the biggest threat to her, she felt so safe in his arms. Sitting at the lord's table between her husband and Hugh, she ate quietly, conscious of her husband's gaze. If she looked up at any time, he was watching her, with a different sort of look in his eyes, that seemed to smolder with a quiet intensity. She could never discern his thoughts, as he seemed to do hers. "Lady," said a young voice beside her. She turned, saw the face of Robert's squire, who had been sitting with him, and felt the blood drain from her face. "Aye?" "Do not fear, lady. He has not worsened. He is awake. And hungry." A raucous cheer filled the hall, coming from the group of knights who had kept their supper subdued while they waited. "I will go to him," she responded. The lord also rose to accompany her. In the chamber behind the dais, Robert lay on the bed in the position she had prescribed. He grinned, a wide, toothy grin, yet grimaced as he did. "You have not killed me, lady, so it must be that I will live." "I had no plan to kill you, Robert. But I feared that as the result." "I but meant to tease." Melisande blinked, once more confused by the odd thing Normans called teasing. "How do you feel?" "Some things hurt more. Some less. Mayhap I can breathe better, soon." "Nonetheless, you must not breathe deeply for a while. I will bind your chest again tomorrow. I have heard that you wish to eat. Mayhap broth, and a bit of bread." "No meat?" "No meat. For a few days." Robert groaned.

"Odd," she said, "how a man might be stolid about such a serious wound, yet complain loudly if his stomach is not filled." The Norman lord laughed. Puzzled, she studied him. "What is funny?" She had merely spoken the truth. He laughed harder, and gave her a great hug. "Well, I do not understand," she said, determined to persist. "It seems to me, men's jokes are based on lies. But what I said was the truth." Robert groaned again. "I do not think this is a good time for jokes. It hurts to laugh." "But I did not tell a joke, Robert." She stepped back then, watching with curiosity the strange interchange between the lord and his knight, that consisted largely of bantering and teasing. She had never accomplished the art of teasing, certainly never had known it in such a way as these men gave so irreverently to each other. It was the same way Gerard had treated her, that she had never quite understood. Mayhap she could try harder to understand it. If she had not much time left to be in this world, would it not be nice to feel this merriment, a bit of joy or silliness? Surely it could not make her situation any worse. The trouble was, she had not the slightest notion of how to go about it. Then she would have to learn. Aye, she needed to find out how it was done. *** How extraordinary she was. While Alain talked and planned with his knights, he could not take his eyes off her. Melisande left their company and went about the injured men, who rested in some sort of comfort on fresh straw in the great hall's aisles. She seemed pleased with what she saw. With her, it was hard to tell, for she never smiled. Nor, he realized abruptly, had he seen her shed a tear. Not within those terrible night terrors, not even at the burial of her father. There, she had merely dropped a handful of dirt into the grave and walked away. No matter that she had hated him, would she not have cried a little? Might she be one of those people who could only weep when alone? Such a paradox. Such a mass of contradictions. She had a store of secret knowledge that baffled him. Latin. Strange herbs. Other strange beliefs that came out at unexpected times. She pretended it was not so, but it was. More than that, she had new ideas of her own, and supplemented her knowledge with them. Yet, she thought herself no different from any other woman. Right now, she was a very tired woman. She surely had not had a day quite so unnerving and exhausting for some time. What she had accomplished was truly remarkable. He had never seen anything like it, and he hoped desperately, for her sake as well as Robert's, that it would work. After the supper meal, the tables were folded away, and the tired knights, servants, and villeins dispersed themselves to their piles of straw, winding themselves in their cloaks for warmth in the chilly hall. Alain chose his place closest to the hearth. For her. "Come, lady, you must rest. Your day has been long. You will sleep with me. I have found a sheet to cover the straw." He gestured toward the heap of straw that would be theirs. "Here?" "Of course, as you have chosen to give away the bed to Robert. Come, you are tired." "But I-- everyone is sleeping here." "Aye. There is no other place, unless you have a fondness for sleeping with the cattle."

"I had not thought of that. I do not think I have ever slept in the same room with anyone else." "Besides your husband." "Well of course, I did mean that." He smiled. "I have never known another person who has always slept alone. Even the king is accustomed to others about his bed chamber. I cannot think why your father would have wanted such for you." "Fyren's reasons were his own. He saw no sense in enlightening me." What could that mean? "That is done and gone now, Melisande. Come now, and lie down with me." He gave no further opportunity for dispute, and guided her toward the hearth. Her wary glances he answered only with a smile, for he would no more give her the chance to escape him now than he ever would again. "But what if I--" "If you dream, lady? If you dream, I am here. That is how it will always be now. And the others, it is no news to them." "It is not?" "You have always been protected by those of your household. Did you not know?" "Thomas, of course. All of them?" "And now you are protected by me. Lie down, now." At his urging, she snuggled herself beside him, down into the resilient straw. He pulled his purple cloak over them. She sat up abruptly. "What is it?" "Not that cloak. It makes me sneeze." "What, then?" "My own will do well enough." "Then, mayhap we could use the both, the purple one on top?" "But it will still make me sneeze." "I cannot fathom such." "Well, I do not fathom how a cat could make a person sneeze, but you say they do annoy the king that way." "Well, then, the green cloak, only." He tucked the green cloak about her as he eased his thigh over hers. She stiffened. He laughed, almost in a whisper, his words tickling her ear. "What is it now, love?" "It is naught." "Naught, she says," came a crude cackling from the dim aisles. "I'll wager it is naught." "Not from what I've seen." laughed another. "Tend to your own affairs," Alain retorted. "Do not mind them, love. They will make something out of anything." Alain touched the callused pads of his fingers to the softness of her cheek, marveling at their difference. One finger stroked over the elegant curve of her golden brow, then his hand laced itself into the yellow flow of her tresses. He bent to her, kissed her lips, first gently. As her delicate hand rose to his chest in a feather-soft touch, the full force of his lust hit him, like a fearsome lance thrown by an alien warrior. She had never given him a true caress during her waking moments. And like that innocent touch of her arms about his waist when she had ridden the horse behind his saddle, it sent every part of his body stirring to intense attention.

Her lips parted for him, begging a deeper kiss, and he answered her invitation, searching, probing, encouraging her delicate response. His hand roamed down the length of her back, molded around the exquisite curve of her buttocks, and brought her body snugly against his. A great heat surged through him. But nay. She was not ready for this, not here. Whatever experience she'd had with another, she was unaccountably naive in the ways of men and women. And her body might be responsive, but she was not ready for it. Yet. And he was not ready to quit. Yet. With no more than a reluctant sigh, he changed his kisses to gentle nibbles as he released her, eased himself back to his place beside her. He smiled. It was but a matter of time. He would simply have to find a way to contain himself. The problem was, however, just how much of the torture he could endure while containing himself. She watched him with her solemn blue, unfathomable eyes. "Go to sleep, lady," he whispered, and stroked his fingers over the long, silken strands of butter-colored hair. From somewhere within the hall, a soft giggle of a feminine sort broke through their private cocoon. "What are they doing?" Melisande asked. He laughed. "You do not know?" "Oh." "We could do that too, if you want." Her eyes were like the hare cornered by the fox. He laughed again. She was so easy to tease. "Do not worry yourself so, love. I will never force you." "Never?" "Never." And never was a very long time, that was beginning to look longer, every day. "Mayhap I would attempt to persuade, but that is altogether a different thing." "Oh." "Oh? What is amiss with that?" "Nay, it is not that." "Come now, love. What is amiss?" "Oh, it is naught. I suppose you are-- oh, it is naught." "I do not believe it. Something disturbs you, and I will know what it is. I will badger you until you tell me. Mayhap I will tickle you until you tell me." She tensed, clearly not wanting to be tickled. "It is only that I think, mayhap you do not find me attractive." "I do not? Where did you get such a notion?" "I-- you do not-- oh, it is not important." "It is important to me." "You do not demand your rights." Alain repressed his chuckle. "It is true, I do not. But what has that to do with it?" "But a man must-- must he not, if he is aroused?" He tried not to laugh, it escaped anyway. "Nay, lady, it is not true. And whatever man told you that, lied. Or, I suppose some men cannot tell the difference between what they must have and what they merely want." "Oh."

It was time for a little persuasion. He took her hand from where it rested at her side, and guided it down the length of his body to touch his erection. She jerked back, but he would not let her go. "Do you know what this is, love?" "Aye." A twinge of nervousness echoed through her voice. "And know you what it means?" "Aye." "It means that I am attracted to you, am aroused by your presence." "Aye, I'd say he is, all right," said a low, anonymous voice. "Leave them alone, Merle. Have you not seen a nervous bride before?" "Not for long!" A rumble of male cackles swept through the outer reaches of the hall, punctuated here and there with a feminine bleating sort of giggle. Alain decided he'd best find a more private occasion to educate his lady. But let her think on it. "Another time," he whispered, and gave her a last kiss. "You must sleep now." *** Fire. Fire leaping, dancing, cavorting like demons. Great, evil tongues of it, lapping at her feet. And she, cold and dark in their midst. Circling, swirling, laughing, screaming. Dancing demons leering, beckoning. She wanted to scream, run, hide. But there was no place to go. The flames-tongues-demons surrounded her, blocked all retreat. Save me. She was alone. Nay, she was overwhelmed with malicious beings. "I will come for you, Melisande." The lapping tongues whirled about her, melded into a face. Fyren. Nay, you are dead. "I will come for you, Melisande." You cannot. You are dead. "You are not rid of me so easily. Did you think you would escape me?" You are dead. Dead! "I will come. You cannot escape. Have you forgotten who I am?" You lie. You are merely a man. You are dead. "I am Satan's spawn, and you will never escape me. I will come for you, Melisande." Nay! You're dead! You're-"Come love, wake now. It is only a dream. Wake, love." "Nay! You're--" "You are safe, Melisande. No one will hurt you. I will never allow it. Wake for me, love." The arms around her were gentle, comforting. His eyes, gentle, too, black and deep. Alain. His lips, tender, sweet. Voice low and gravelly, soothing and enticing. Alain. Her husband. "It is but a dream, love. You are safe. Wake for me, love." "Alain." Her love. He smiled. "You see? All is well, now. None will hurt you. Are you awake?" "Aye." Her heart still hammered in her chest, she still gulped shallow breaths. Nay, all was not well. Not just yet.

"Come then, lie down with me. You can sleep now." "Nay." She couldn't. "Nay, not yet." If she lay down again so soon, the dream would recapture her. She knew it. Fyren reached up from Hell to grab her. He would pull her down to him through the dream. Melisande leaned into Alain's chest, absorbing his protective embrace as if it flowed around and into her while she still trembled. "Do you remember it?" Remember? It was there, it was-- what? The edge of the dream receded, beyond her grasp, slipped away. Left only its ugly imprint. She shook her head. ".. It is gone." "Then let it go. A dream cannot hurt you, love." He did not know. A dream could burn, char. Destroy. Fire. "Fyren." "You dreamed of Fyren? What?" "Fire. I know not, just fire." "Fire? What is there in fire that reminds you of him?" “I will come for you.” "He is from Hell." Alain's embrace strengthened, and he massaged her back slowly. His lips nibbled at her in soft caresses. "He was no more than a man, love, and he is dead." She wanted to believe that. But Hell reached out to her to claim her for her sins. Fyren would win. Never. He would not take Alain. He would not take her. He would have no more victims. And who was she to stop him? "Lie down with me, now, love. You have waked for me, and the dream is gone, now. And you see, it did not hurt you." "Aye," she said, and let him ease her back to the straw pallet. He did not have to know the truth. For a moment, she lay still, absorbing the tender touch of the Norman's huge hands as he smoothed back her hair. In the dim glow from the hearth, his eyes sparkled with an uncertain kind of intensity. Tentatively, she ran her fingers over his cheek, bristly with the day's unshaven beard. He kissed her fingertips as they neared his lips. "What happens?" she asked. "Next?" "I mean, when I dream." "You are afraid, although I do not know of what. You cry out, and that is when I come to you. I think sometimes you dream of a place that is cold and dark. Do you know of such?" "Aye." "Tell me, love." "There are deep pits in the cavern below the castle. When I would not do-- what he wanted, he would make me-- he would put me in the pit. It was so dark I couldn't even see the top, unless he held a lantern over it. And I didn't dare move, because I was afraid I would fall in even deeper. And cold." "Did he give you anything to eat?"

"Nay. But there was water. I could lick it off the rock." "If he were alive now, I would kill him." "It is not important, anymore." The Norman drew her closer into his arms. Mayhap Fyren would claim her, but she would not let him have her husband. Alain did not deserve to die. Somehow, she would save him. Somehow. *** Melisande woke when the hearth had burned down to embers and the air was chill. The tip of her nose ached with the cold. Beside her, her Norman lord lay awake and watching, his dark eyes like smoldering coals, as if he had not slept at all. The pads of his huge fingers brushed across her cheek. His kiss brushed across her lips. He whispered in her ear. "Never think I do not desire you, lady. But no amount of desire will ever bring me to force myself on you." "None?" "None. You cannot tempt me beyond my bounds. Do you choose to challenge it?" "A challenge? How so, lord?" "Anything you should ask of me if I violate my pledge." "Anything? Anything at all?" She almost felt a smile come to her lips. The opportunity? Was this it? "Anything, my love. But you cannot win it, for I will never do it." "Men are ever boastful." She felt the rumble of his laughter in his chest, for it almost could not be heard. "A challenge, then?" "I will think on it." When she woke with morning's first light, her back curved neatly into the haven of his body, touching from head to toe. She held the hand that cupped her breast. She could not bear the thought of losing him, but she could not change that. The very act of love he craved of her, she also craved of him, though it would bring about her destruction. Yet, oddly, she almost wished for it sooner, rather than later. It would have made no difference to her, did it come early or late, save that somehow she must wrest the cloak from him first. *** Alain stood in the bailey of the new motte while his squire lifted the shiny hauberk over his head and adjusted it into its proper fit. Now he was going to have to tell her. She deserved to know. Needed to know. Aye, he did wish for a way to put it off longer, for he could not tell how she would take it. And he did not want to lose her trust again. But how? He didn't know how, only that it must be done. He could not allow her to fear for her life at his hands any longer. He began to devise in his head the words he would use. It reminded him of the way a blacksmith fashioned a helm, trying again and again for fit until it was perfect. But he could find no perfect fit. There was a flaw in every word he chose. There must be an answer. There was a way. He had to find it. He watched her as she made her last check of the men she had aided. And when she went to Robert and issued instructions to the squire, something more tugged at his heart. Aye, she had him by his heartstrings.

For now, though, he had a different set of problems, as his knights prepared to leave the motte and return to the castle. "I am grateful that you came, Alain," said Hugh. "It is a terrible thing, to know a friend is in need, and so close, yet to be helpless to aid him." "Aye." He knew. He had ridden with Hugh and Robert a long time, nearly as long as he had been with Chrétien. Robert had been with them in the household of the Conqueror when they were but boys. "I'll leave Robert and his men with you. God willing, he will heal properly." "And no little thanks to your lady. I am not sorry you brought her, Alain. Yet I cannot see--" "I cannot explain, Hugh. Aye, I know all think me a fool, Chrétien most of all. Yet how can I waste one such as she on the minding of a castle's meals?" "I think her much changed from our first meeting. She has a fondness for you. Yet there is still something." "Aye." How could he say? It was not for sharing. "You have things in good order, Hugh. And I am pleased that you could dig the moat so deep." "It went well enough, with the timber so close. Mayhap we will have the tower complete before aught more befalls us." "My northern frontier is now in your hands. I must do what I can to secure the south and prepare for Rufus." "Anwealda knows she is with you, now." "And that we must return. If I thought her safer here, I would leave her with you. But that would only encourage Anwealda to gather all he could find to throw against you. And in that instance, I doubt you could hold." "As you wish, Alain. But I do not doubt every man here would defend her to the death." Alain smiled. "But that is the last thing she would want. She would give herself up for even one of them." "What will you do if Anwealda captures her?" He studied the dirt of the bailey. The very thought brought him fear. "I know not." Hugh's eyebrows raised, but he did not reply. "None has heard of Dougal's doings?" "Not even your captured Saxon, and I vow he tells the truth." And that increased the risk, for all that they speculated Dougal was in Carlisle. Yet, he did not regret his choice. It was as if, in healing others, she began to heal herself. He wanted that for her, would die to give it to her. How could he expect them to understand? He watched as two squires lifted a heavy hauberk over the lady's head and eased it down over her body. Although it had come from a small man who had died, her slim proportions still left it bagging at her sides. "It does not fit," she protested. "You did not make me wear such a thing before." He smiled at her complaint. "Anwealda did not know you were with us before. It will help keep you safe." "It did not do much for its previous owner." The knights chuckled while she looked at them in confusion, having no notion that she had made a joke. But he knew their hearts. They wanted their lady safe. If they had not valued her before, they now thought of those she had saved, some of whom could now actually stand about and watch the departure. Now they saw her differently. "Yet, you said yourself, the mail saved Robert's life. And Chrétien's, as well."

"Aye, lady," Chrétien added. "If we must wear the stuff, then so must you. When you are safe again within the castle, you may shuck the shell, and tell all what tyrants we are." She mumbled something. He was not sure what. Then Alain boosted her into the saddle. Although it was little more than a track where villeins passed to reach their flocks, the road along the river seemed the safest, the surest. He would take no chances that did not have to be taken, and his eyes scanned for every movement.

CHAPTER 17 Please, God, make the day hot. It is not for me I ask. You know it is not. Make it so hot that he cannot stand the cloak even over his mail. Even as she continued her silent plea, the sun rose higher and sent down its blistering rays. She reveled in its heat upon her face. The mail began to feel as if it burned her skin, all the way through her kirtle, and burned against her scalp. She shoved at the heavy metal coif impatiently until she dislodged it and it fell back against her shoulders, tangling her braid in the rings. With her free hand, she fumbled with it, but could not separate it from the mail. "Hold, lady, I will help you." Her Norman had not ridden beside her for over an hour, having things, she supposed, to discuss with his knights. But now he slowed his pace and leaned in his saddle to free her hair from its trap. It slid easily away as he worked at it. "We will stop at the stone ford," he said. "The horses need water." "I could also use some," she replied. "We will drink, but we cannot stop to eat. Anwealda could be down upon us quickly." "But we are not so far from the castle now." He nodded. "Soon. We must stop for the horses anyway. But, one thing, Melisande." "Aye?" "When we stop, the coif must go back on." "Why?" "We will be vulnerable. We should expect an attack then." "I have been a burden to you." "I have willingly accepted it, and you have rewarded me greatly. Be assured, my men will protect you with their lives." "Aye," she said. At the ford, the knights dismounted by groups, some always in the saddle, and none far from it. Reluctantly, she drew the rough mail coif over her head again. Its fit was poor. It snagged her hair, and like the hauberk, bagged uncomfortably. Melisande dismounted and brought her grey courser to the stream in the first group, then remounted the moment it was through. She drank only a little. As the last group of knights finished refreshing their mounts, the first began to ride out. Norman knights surrounded her, while their eyes scanned restlessly about the hillsides and down the stream. Still, nothing happened. She had begun to believe Anwealda had lost his taste for a fight. The castle was almost too close now for him to take the chance. "Do you think we will make it, Chrétien?" she asked, as that knight came up beside her.

"Mayhap. Or Anwealda could have taken the castle." "Do you think he did?" "I cannot tell. These are dangerous times, lady. We must take no unnecessary chances." She had seen him fight, knew his bravery. But she also sensed the tense grip he held on the reins of his war horse. This was not the placid Chrétien she had known before, within the castle gates. Like a wild tomcat, he seemed to bristle down his backbone. His eyes were focused on the bend in the dirt road, but flicked anxiously to the hillside at their right. "What are you expecting?" "If we make it round this hill, we will make it home. I expected an attack at the stream. But this is as dangerous." "Why?" "We have decided against an outrider, so that he will not have notice of our coming, but he may also have spies in the hills. I watch for them. We will charge around the hill together, and may catch him off guard. But if he blocks us, we can either fight or try to ride over the hill. So he would try to block that as well." "Does he outnumber us still?" "Likely." She fell silent, watching the horizon as did he. Near the top of the long hill, she caught a flickered glint beneath a clump of trees. "Chrétien," she said softly, and nodded in that direction. "I see it. Alain. The trees near the top." "Aye. Hold the charge until we draw nearer." "Aye." Again, the knights bunched about her, while acting as if they did nothing unusual. Like them, she awaited the signal, and prayed she would not hinder them. "Go!" shouted Alain, and the knights jammed their spurs into their mounts. Her swift courser easily matched the racing war horses as they sped around the curve. Her heart stopped. Blocked. Saxon knights spread in a double line across the road, both up the hillside and below. She had not guessed Anwealda still commanded so many men. Norman chargers drew to a halt, prancing nervously. Chrétien drew the net closer around the lady. "Chrétien," said Alain. "The lady, at all costs." Chrétien took her grey courser by its bridle to steady it. The horse jerked about as if in a stable on fire. Melisande slanted a glance at their rear. Riders came around the curve of the hill behind them, trapping them. "Dougal," she said. Dougal, at last to show his face. They were not merely trapped, but outnumbered. Greatly outnumbered. "Ho, Norman!" shouted Anwealda. "Have you taken to making knights of women, now?" "I have heard they all are women," said another Saxon. "Aye, or they take the place of women. Mayhap that is a boy who rides with him. Has he taken a liking to boys, think you?" "Mayhap he learned it from Rufus." "First hand!"

"It is but the witch, herself," said Anwealda. We should not be surprised to see her ride to battle with men. Have you told him, witch, what he really faces? I think not, else he would flee back to Rufus, his tail between his legs." "He is no coward, Anwealda," she shouted. "Nor do you frighten me." "Quiet, lady," Chrétien hissed. "Do not stir them. I had hoped they would not recognize you so soon." "He knows me well, Chrétien. But so does Dougal. Dougal!" "Lady, I did not know you rode with the Norman." "You know, now. What say you, Dougal, that you ride against me? Have I not inherited my father's place?" "Nay, lady, for you sup with Normans. I have no quarrel with you, but my land is my own, and I will not bow down to a dissolute Norman king. And I am no man's vassal. Leave them, and join Saxons like yourself." Melisande flashed a look at Chrétien by her side. "He has no stomach for this," she said in a low voice. "Aye. He explains himself too much. When the melee begins, try to break free. If you must be captured, head for Dougal." "I do not wish to go anywhere." "You must, lady. Ride uphill. Your courser is light and swift, and likely to break free. No Saxon war horse could catch him if you push him hard enough." "Nay." Chrétien latched her wrist in an iron grip. His eyes blazed. "You must not be taken. Promise me, lady." she dared not object. In his eyes blazed the remembrance of his dead wife, and Gerard's living one. He and Alain both would die before letting Anwealda take her. "Aye," she said. "I will be behind you." It would be futile to object to that, too. But she could see no clear path, either up or down. She turned again to Dougal, assessed his men and their strength. Even without Anwealda, he was strong enough to take them. She affixed her eyes to Dougal, who jerked nervously on his charger's reins while the horse did an awkward, poorly controlled dance. The mounts of his front-riding knights balked. What unnerved them? The word began like a low rumble, an indistinct sound she could not understand, that spread through the Saxon knights at their rear. As a group, they bolted, whirled, dug in their long spurs and fled. "What?" shouted Chrétien, whose eyes flitted anxiously over the countryside. She pivoted in her saddle as a hideous scream rolled down off the fell, freezing her blood. The word she had not deciphered became a shout as the Normans took it up. "Gerard!" Down from the hill rode Gerard, with his long lance lowered, and leaning into his racing stallion. His Saxon knights thundered after him with a yell that blended in a grotesque, bloody music. "Gerard!" she screamed back. "And Thomas, too! Look!" Thomas, his silver hair flying beyond his helm, with the household knights, crested the hill and raced down the slope.

Anwealda's men faltered. The Normans seized the advantage, and Anwealda sat in the trap. His great brown stallion reared. Anwealda jerked the reins of his steed and spun away in the only direction he could go, downslope from the road, across the valley, up to the hill beyond. The look of blood steamed in Gerard's eyes as he sped past. He had a grudge to settle. Lynet lived, as did his babe, but Anwealda would have had it differently. Gerard would see Anwealda in his grave. "See to the lady!" shouted Alain at Chrétien, then he spurred his own charger to the chase. Thomas pulled his men to a halt, and surrounded her and Chrétien's knights, while Alain and Gerard raced on. "Thomas!" "Aye, lady. It is good to see you safe." "How did you know?" "We have been watching since you left. When we saw Anwealda skulking near the castle, we thought first he meant to lay siege. But then we understood his plan, for if he has you and the Norman, he has the game. I will not let you away from the castle again, lady." The pursuit across the dale slowed, for Anwealda had made his escape good. Only a few of his lagging knights had been unhorsed, and they were being forced afoot back up the hillside to the road. "Come, lady, we must not delay, lest Dougal realize we are split again." Chrétien, always the first to recognize their weaknesses, tugged her courser's bridle as if he did not trust her to obey, and they dashed along the road, surrounded by the melded group of riders. She glanced back for Alain. But she knew better than to ask to wait. At Chrétien's bidding, she kicked the courser's flanks, and it galloped off toward the castle. Once within the gates again, Melisande felt the heaviness lift from her chest, and realized that more than the mail had weighed upon her. A stable boy caught the grey courser's bridle and steadied it as Melisande dismounted. "Help me out of this thing," she told the closest page, but the boy could not do it alone. He was much too small. He ran off to find two larger boys for the task. The castle gate again swung open, and the remainder of the knights rode in, first Gerard's troop, then only a moment later, the Norman lord with the others. Gerard pitched himself down from his mighty white war horse, and stalked across the bailey where she stood. He yanked at his gauntlets as he faced her, and his brown eyes blazed fury. "Ah, my lady of the chain mail. Well, you have wreaked havoc this time." "The lord. Is he hurt?" "Nay, lady, none are injured. But that is either by God's grace or pure fortune." Gerard then dismissed himself with a curt bow and stomped away, seeking help with his own mail. "Gerard!" called a feminine voice from the hall. Melisande turned to see Lynet, who stood within the double doors. "Gerard, are you well?" "Aye, lady. But your pardon, I must tend to other things first." Melisande stared at Gerard. She had never seen him in a fit of temper. Then she saw Alain, saw that his dark, piercing eyes sought her out first and found her safe. The anxious tension in his face faded to a smile. She felt an unfamiliar quirking at the right side of her mouth. He was safe, too. The Norman, like the others, launched himself out of the saddle to the ground and steadied his mount, which was blowing hard. A squire rushed up to take the animal. Then also like the others, Alain shed the heavy mail.

"De Crency!" Alain turned at the shout, as Gerard stalked toward him. Gerard planted himself before him, glaring. Then a hard fist flew forward, and caught Alain on the chin. Alain staggered back and barely retained his footing. Gerard stood, seething, feet planted, fists balled and ready. "Chrétien!" Melisande shouted, stunned at what she saw. Chrétien, who stood beside her, merely shook his head. His jaw was set as rigidly as Gerard's. "You do not do something?" "Gerard has earned the right to settle his differences with the lord." "But to hit his lord?" "Alain can hit back, if he chooses," said Chrétien. "I think he will not. I will not interfere." Chrétien guessed correctly. When Alain made no offer to return the blow, Gerard turned and stomped away to where his lady waited at the hall's door. Melisande's jaw hung slack before she recovered to speak. "I do not understand Normans." "You do not?" Chrétien almost growled his reply. "Had it not been Gerard, I would have done the same." "But why?" "I did not approve of your going, lady. The risk was unnecessary. Had not Gerard arrived when he did, you would be in Anwealda's hands, and we would be dead. I am angry at him for exposing you to this, and angry at you for going. But even more, I am angry at myself because I did not stop it." "Then you did not care that I treated your wounded knights?" "I am grateful to you, for I do love Robert like a brother. But he is a knight. He knows the risk he takes." "As did I." "You did not. We have trained at the quintain since we were babes, and rode in to war as naught more than boys. We suffer our wounds so that women do not have to risk themselves." "You tell me naught I do not already know, Chrétien. But you have forgotten something. Women also have their place in the world. We must also take our risks." "Then take yours in bearing babes, and leave ours to us." Melisande felt her defiance surging through her. "Then if it was so dangerous, why did he let me go?" Something flashed in his eyes, and he looked like she had slapped him. "Because men in love are rash and foolish." Chrétien gave a stiff, small bow, and tromped after Gerard for the hall. In love? Could it be? Chrétien did not look as if he lied, and he knew his friend far better than she. Mayhap there was hope in that. Yet a man in love would have farther to fall when disappointed. "I see we have both been thoroughly set down for our folly." Alain now stood beside her. An angry red mark spread across his jaw, discoloring the skin beneath the bristle of black beard that had grown since they had left the castle the day before. The swelling made his grin lop-sided. "You are not hurt?" "Nay. But the point was made. I suppose they are right. It was an unwise decision. I should have left you within the safety of the castle." It felt like a slap on her face. "Why didn't you, then?"

"I cannot explain. But with Cyneric dead, I did not think the risk was that great. We were fools to think Dougal gone to the north merely because he had not been seen about." "So you also do not value my skills." "Not so, lady. But I value you, yourself, more than my own life." "Gerard brought Lynet. How was she safe, when I was not?" His throaty chuckle rumbled deep in his chest. "He could not very well leave her behind, for the south is too weak without his presence. But do not worry yourself. They will calm down. It is always easier to criticize after the act." "I have never seen Gerard so angry. And Chrétien, I thought him the most even-tempered of men. He has always seemed so placid, as if naught at all ruffled him." "Nay," he said, taking her arm to walk. "He is a very angry man. For all that he seems at peace with the world, his pain and grief are still very deep. As is his loneliness." "Mayhap he should marry again." "I think not. Not yet. A woman could not find her place in his heart, so soon. Come now, mayhap you will want to wash up before your supper, or see to your guest." "Aye," she replied. "There is time enough. Will you not want a bath, lord?" "Leave the water for me," he said. "Nay, lord. You may have it first. As you have said, I must see to my guests." Melisande and Lynet had never been close, although she called her friend. They had seen each other but a few times. Gerard loved his wife, yet Lynet harbored a wariness over the lady he protected. She had never wanted that. But Gerard, like Thomas, had kept his secret watch because he feared Foreign's evil, not because he held some undeclared love for Melisande. Still, Lynet was here, and it was Melisande's obligation to make Gerard's wife comfortable within the hall. Stopping only to pass through the kitchen and see that supper preparations were properly done, she hurried toward the paired doors that opened out onto the upper bailey. At first sight, Lynet emitted a little squeal and ran up to Melisande, her arms draped quickly around her quarry in a delicate embrace. Even that small gesture engendered discomfort that perhaps Lynet sensed. "We were so worried," said Lynet, "when Gerard saw the rebels and guessed their plan. Why did you go, Melisande?" "I was needed." "Aye, but it is so dangerous." "Do you not think sometimes a risk must be taken? I would do what I must to defeat Anwealda, for he is no better than Fyren." "Aye, 'tis so. 'Tis a terrible thing to say, I know, but all are glad Fyren is gone. Gerard would not allow me to come to you as long as Fyren might be here. I hope I do not offend you." "You do not offend me, Lynet. I know very well of Fyren's evil. And I am gladder than any that I no longer need fear him." If only that were true. But that was something Lynet did not need to know. "Where is the babe, Lynet? I would see her." "She sleeps. But she will wake soon. Thomas has given us your chamber as he says you do not use it. You do not mind?" Thomas knew better. The liar. "Of course not." "Do you know, I owe my babe's life to the Norman lord? It was he who persuaded Botolf to let her go." "Aye, so I heard. But do you know they have all but made a saga of your rescue? It was such a brave thing you did, Lynet. Alain says you could have been killed."

Lynet smiled, a bright smile as full of mischief as her sparkling brown eyes. "But Melisande, I would have been killed, otherwise. It was something Gerard taught me for my own defense, to go suddenly limp and drop. I confess, I was not certain I believed it would work." "And the count?" "It is something he does when he trains his knights and squires-- when he wants them to all do something at the same time. I knew by his eyes he expected it of me, so I counted to be sure he knew when it would happen. But come, after such a long journey, and even a battle, you must be the one needing to rest. My dear, you do look ill-used." Melisande suddenly stared at the blood-spattered kirtle that she still wore. "Oh, I am sorry, Lynet. I hope I have not offended you." "Of course not. But the water is being prepared. Allow me to help you with your bath." "It is my place to see to your needs." "But allow me, in gratitude that you live, and for my babe. He is a fine-looking man, your Norman. Are you happy with him?" "I--" Lynet's saucy brown eyes grew narrow, and she laughed. She took Melisande by the hand and urged her toward the bath house. *** In the hall that night, the wine flowed freely. Melisande sat with Lynet and the baby, between the two husbands. Husband. She was becoming accustomed to the word, although she thought she might never become accustomed to their Norman ways. "You have not answered my question," said mischievous Lynet in a low voice. "You needn't have whispered, Lynet. The men are too elated with their own successes to notice our small talk." "You evade me. I ask again. Are you happy with him, Melisande?" "I know him little, Lynet." "But well enough, I vow. Your eyes do shine when you look at him." "He is kind. He is not like the Norman I expected. Nor are they like Saxons, Lynet. Ah, but you would know that." The corners of Lynet's lips turned up. Her brown eyes glinted. Melisande had always known Gerard was happy with her. Melisande had never really thought of Gerard as Norman. Like Saxon men, Gerard did not look upon women as unequipped to deal with the world, mindless creatures that must have a man to tell them what thoughts to have. But the Saxons no longer ruled England. The Normans had come, and changed everything else. She supposed they would have their way about women, too. Yet Alain, her husband, did not seem so inclined. "All my life, I have heard of Norman brutality. It was no mere rumor of the thousands slain, innocents and rebels alike, in the Harrying of the North. Even now, a generation later, it is said villages remain deserted and fields untilled. In my mother's day, many fled to Strathclyde and became serfs where once they had been wealthy artisans or merchants. Many more returned to their land and starved to death. My mother survived, having been married off to Fyren earlier in that year. Her family all died." And none had lived to defend her against Fyren's evil and tyranny. "Aye, I know the stories. That they raped and pillaged like their bloodthirsty Viking ancestors. They beat their wives, and killed them when they were dissatisfied with them. But I think, Melisande, there are such men everywhere. Mayhap there are also good men everywhere."

Was he really different? And did it matter? How could any man be satisfied with her, once he learned the truth? If only she could use the challenge he had issued her, both to keep alive and to get the cloak from him. But the best she could hope for was to use it to keep him at a distance long enough to find a way to dispose of the malicious garment. But what if she did not? Or if his disappointment in her was so great that he did not honor his promise? She had tried to think of a way to explain to him the danger of the cloak. If she had not already made such a fuss of disliking it, he might now believe her. But not now. Fyren's sorcery was widely speculated among the Normans. Anwealda had openly called her witch. And the Normans had seen her ways of healing. She had made a mistake when she had treated Robert so boldly. How could they not wonder about her? If she told him of the poison dye, how it worked through the skin, he would see it as nothing less than sorcery. And mayhap he would see that as the explanation of why she still held herself aloof from him. She would be branded witch. And once so, would never have another chance to wrest the cloak from him. Fyren had once said that magic was no more than knowledge beyond the ordinary man's ken, but then he had buried himself so deeply into his evil deeds that he had lost his humanity, and believed in his own lies. The magic became real to him. She could never know. Was it, or not? I am the spawn of Satan. You dare not refuse me. She would never know. Until she found herself at the Gates of Hell. *** "You will sleep with me tonight, Melisande," he said quietly as he climbed the stairs beside her. His long arm draped across her back, his hand resting just below her shoulder. She had come to expect that already, and found no need even for response. How odd it was to find such joy and comfort in his arms, even knowing how it would one day end in pain and death. Yet even the smallest touch from him, she treasured. And Thomas had given her chamber to Gerard's family, as he had given her mother's to Chrétien. No point in protesting, really. With fingers that skimmed lightly over her, he helped her undress, undid her laces, lifted her gown over her head. She stopped him when he raised her chemise. Disappointment filled his eyes, but he said nothing. She combed through her free-flowing hair, and pulled it back to braid. "Leave it," he said. "But it will tangle." "Nay, leave it." He raised his hand in a gesture that both caressed her cheek and smoothed her hair away from her face. So she left it to fall about her shoulders and crawled beneath the thick down quilt. She watched as he shed his own clothes, his skin like gold in the candlelight. He was so very beautiful. Strong, blocky, with muscles that bulged out like crags on the fells, rugged and fascinating. The silky black hairs spread lightly over his chest and tapered downward and disappeared at his waist, to reappear and surround his manhood. She loved the feel of them between her fingers. Had she done that? Aye, she had. It was not a memory. Simply knowledge. He hid nothing from her. Not even the great bulge of his erect member. Well then, they would find out tonight if he was right. Or if she was. But, for his vows, men did not long deny themselves, once aroused.

"I do not think you can keep your word," she said. He laughed, like a roll of thunder, yet soft and quiet. "You will see. You accept the challenge, then?" "Aye." She watched as he hung his dagger by its belt around the post of the bed. That would be the way she would go, then, for the dagger would be at hand when he learned the truth. Still, she prayed for one more day, one more chance to get the cloak. She must not let it all be in vain. "The night is cold, love. Shall I draw the bed curtains?" "Nay. I do not like them." "Aye, I have noticed you do not use them. Yet are you not cold at night?" "But when the curtains are drawn, I think I cannot breathe. Only leave the candle burning." As he slid his strong body beneath the quilt, the glow of his skin dimmed from the gilt of the candlelight to silver in the shadows. He snuggled her closer. His luminous black eyes seemed ready to mate with hers. "But I will have you, anyway, Melisande." "Nay," she answered nervously. "Because you will give yourself to me." "Nay." "You will, for you desire me nearly as much as I do you." "Nay, it is not so." "It is not, you say?" His eyes glowed with wickedness. He pressed the length of his body against her side, draping one muscular thigh over her leg, forcing his knee between both of hers. He nuzzled at her throat with secret whispers laced with tiny bites. She moaned and pushed against him. "You said--" "I said little enough about persuasion, love. This is persuasion." He captured her mouth with sweet lips and tongue, held her hostage with the plunging depth of his kiss. He would soon control her entirely. She would lose everything because she would give it away. She must stop him! Yet if she might just savor this moment firs- His hands cupped over her breasts, and fingers found hard nipples waiting for them. A whimpered cry escaped her as a core of fire shot through her. "Nay," she pleaded, and frantically pushed against him. He stopped. Sat up on the bed, watched her as she coiled away from him. He read her thoughts, she was sure. Yet, he did not know. Must not know. "Very well," he said in a resigned tone, and lay back down onto the feather mattress. Ah, she wished she might just tell him all, let it be done with, for she did not want to see him suffer. She had heard men suffered. It was worse than a dangerous wound, some said. "Melisande, I am sorry. I did not mean to frighten you. I will not tease you anymore." Teasing? Nay, even more now, she did not understand what it was he called teasing. "You did not frighten me." "I know fear when I see it. What is it that frightens you so, love? You do not truly think I will hurt you?" What could she say? He said he would not hurt her, but he did not know how sorely he would be tried. "Tomorrow," she said. Once again he drew her into his arms and touched a kiss against her forehead.

"It will be a long night," he said. And what would she tell him tomorrow? *** She bolted upright, taut as a bowstring. "He's here!" she gasped. Instantly, Alain sat up and took her into his arms. "It's a dream, love. It is but a dream." "He's here. I know he is!" She trembled, her hand squeezing his arm. The candle had failed. Alain could see nothing in the room's utter darkness. "It is only a dream, love. Wake up, now, and it will go away." "I am awake. But--" "No one is here but you and me. I will relight the candle." "Nay, stay with me. You are right, it is but a dream. I am sorry. I did not mean to wake you." He smiled, then remembered he could not see him. "Have you forgotten? This is my place. I am your husband. I mean to always be here, so that you need not fear the night anymore." "I know not why you are so patient with me." "I do not find it hard. But let me light the candle again." "I do not need it. I only-- please, just stay with me." Alain urged her back down to the warmth of the feather mattress, and once again brought the down quilt up to her neck and tucked it in. He adjusted his arm about her and lay back onto his own pillow. It was progress, of a sort, that she now woke and recognized her dream for what it was, only the wildness of her own tortured mind producing the terrors of the night. He leaned back and watched the darkness. The darkness moved.

CHAPTER 18 The hairs on his neck bristled. The darkness was nearly total. Whoever was in here could not see any better than he could. Alain rolled to his back, removing the arm that encircled Melisande's waist, reached behind him for the dagger hanging on the bedpost, and eased it into his hand. With his other hand, Alain grasped Melisande's hand, slowly moving it until she could feel the shape of the dagger in his right hand. She took in a sharp breath. He rolled to whisper in her ear, nuzzling at her affectionately. "Be very still." "Aye," she whispered. "Go to sleep, love, all is well," he said aloud. He lay upon his back, right hand crossed over his chest, clasping the dagger and poised to strike. The assassin would come for him, for he would have to be killed in order to get to her. He forced his lungs to breathe like a sleeping man as he waited. Still, he saw nothing, nor heard. But the room smelled of another occupant. He held still, poised for battle. A movement. So slight, he wondered if he imagined it. Nay. It was there. He squeezed her hand, released it. The darkness between him and the shuttered window deepened. The shadow within shadows grew denser. Nearer.

The scent of a man, a big one. The almost silent sound of air, breathing in, out. The slight crack of a flexing arm. Closer. There. With a wild shout, he lunged, guided by instinct. A grisly scream rent the silence. Bone cracked, tissue collapsed beneath his blade. He leapt up, shoved blindly against a heavy male body that staggered back from his fierce thrust. "Run, Melisande! Run!" He slashed out again, again caught flesh that yielded beneath the blade. The cry of victory burst from him as he wrestled the weakened opponent to the floor. Light. Gerard burst through the door between the chambers, holding a rush light torch, freshly sizzling from new fire. Chrétien came through the other chamber's door, a torch in hand. Warily, Melisande reached his side, then bent over the sprawling, bleeding body. "Anwealda," she said, and her tone had a note of flat satisfaction to it. Nor was he surprised. He had taken too many victories away from Anwealda not to expect retaliation. "You are well, lady?" "Aye. You?" "He had no chance to strike. How did you know?" "I-- cannot say. Something woke me. Mayhap a noise." "I sleep lightly. I would also have heard." "Well, something. A smell, mayhap. Aye, I think it was the smell of a candle just snuffed." It could have been. Yet, she had known someone was there, not merely that a candle had gone out. Had she a special gift? It was said the Celts had second sight. Did Saxons? Or perhaps, like him, she had detected the man's scent. It was not particularly subtle. "It is unimportant now," he said. He leaned over the dying man, saw a feeble word form on the man's lips. Again Anwealda struggled to say something. He bent lower. "Witch," said the man, then his body went limp. Alain knelt to close the staring eyes, then stood. "How did he get in here?" Gerard asked. "He could not have slipped past the gate." "The bolt hole," Alain guessed. "He must know this hall as well as any. Lady, do you know?" She shook her head. "But if any could, it would be he. Fyren would have told him. He had Fyren's ear." Several knights gathered on the balcony beyond the door, shoving each other aside, gawking into the chamber. "Remove him," Alain said. Several came forth to carry away the body. "Well, we have only Dougal to worry about now," Chrétien said. "And I think he has little heart to fight if the others are gone." "Anwealda's knights will go to Dougal," said Gerard, "but it will matter little. I count those he has lost, and it is too many." "Thomas, send to Rufus in the morning," Alain said. "He must know of this." "Yet," said Chrétien, "do not grow too cocky or careless. This war is not yet won." Alain smiled, once again admiring Chrétien's caution. If Anwealda had had such a man among his own, he would still live, and mayhap even be the victor.

"Aye," he replied. "'Tis wise to not count the chickens before they are hatched. Tomorrow, have the bolt hole blocked. We will not count the war won until Rufus sits in Carlisle and the last enemy alive has pledged to him." He looked again to Melisande, who stood behind him. "Do you sleep now, lady?" "Mayhap. Aye, I can." It was cue enough. The knights departed, leaving only them. Alain relit the candle. He took his bride in his arms, wishing more than that, but content if he must be. Her head rested wearily against his chest. "I have never seen so many naked men at one time," she said. And he laughed, for he had been far too engrossed in the struggle to notice the lack of dress. "Tonight you have saved me, lady." "I did naught but cry out. It was you who saw him in the dark, not I." "But I would have seen naught, had you not cried out. And with Anwealda gone, much more is resolved. Tonight it is I who owe the debt to you." He led her to the bed. Tomorrow, he would tell her. And then either she would hate him, or she would understand. But he would not have her fear him any longer. *** With the grey dawn came a light rain, plunking its music on the lead roof. She had grown accustomed to the snug warmth of his body next to hers, and roused slowly, vaguely becoming aware that she lay contentedly in Alain's arms, stroking his-She stiffened with the sudden realization of just what she was stroking, and the reason for the ecstatic moans that had awakened her. Her eyelids flew open. His eyes shone in the glitter of the guttering candle as he watched her. That familiar glint of mischief was gone, replaced by lust. And same yearning desire that she saw in him filled her. She yanked her hand away abruptly, and locked it firmly in the other hand, as if it might rebel and spring free again. "Do you never sleep, lord?" she asked to disguise her true feelings. "I sleep, save when being fondled by a beautiful woman." "I did not--" "You did. You need not stop. I do not want you to stop." She rolled away, horrified at how she had betrayed herself. "Melisande," he called to her over her stiffened shoulder, "come back to me, love." "You have promised--." "I did, but this is different. Hear me, love." "You only want--" "At the moment, aye." He tugged at her shoulder to roll her back where she must see him. She felt like a captured hare, caught in her great red tabby's grip, with its belly exposed to the cat's ripping claws. His powerful leg stretched over her, pinning her beneath him. His eyes seemed to burn like charcoal embers. "Melisande," he whispered, in a gravelly voice, "Melisande, listen to me. I know your secret." She jerked, squirmed, against the immovable trap. She was doomed. Where would she go, anyway? There was no place he could not reach or find her. "Nay, you cannot--" "Aye, love. I know your secret, and I do not care."

It could not be. She freed her arms, shoved against him, yet he pinned her beneath him. He caught her cheeks in his hands, wedging her face firmly between them. His eyes impaled her with their smoky gaze. She was helpless in the snare of his body. She was not ready to die. Not ready, not just yet. "You cannot-- you said--" "And I will not. Hear me, lady. You are no virgin. And I do not care." His lips descended to claim hers, hovered but a breath away. What was he saying? What could he mean? And how could he know? None alive knew but her. "You cannot. How could you? Let me go!" She squirmed helplessly. "Calm yourself, lady. When you calm, I will let you go." Her terror spiraled out of control. She staggered ragged breaths into her lungs, gasps that seemed more fear than air, barely aware of the soft touch to her cheek, the melodic, deep timbre of his voice that calmed like a lullaby. That voice that had soothed her out of the terrors of the night. Alain. Sense began to return to her. She had seen him hold a dying knight as gently as a babe. Suddenly it did not seem possible that this same man might choke her life from her. Not the one who had taken her into his arms night after night and chased the terrors away. Her body eased. Yet-His words returned. He did know. And she still lived. He slid off to the side and released her. Shame for her fear rolled over her, as if it would crush her beneath its terrible weight. She sat up and turned away from him, so she did not have to see his eyes. "How could you know?" she asked quietly. "That is what I must tell you. Will you hear me, now?" "Aye." She felt him rise and sit behind her, his body pressed against her body, a knee to each side of her. His big hands rested at her shoulders, lightly possessing her, yet ready to let go if she insisted. But she did not. She did not know what to think or do. "I have already made love to you, Melisande." She jerked again, pulled away. "Nay! It cannot be so." But he drew her back again, tenderly. "It is. It was the night we were wed. I meant you no harm, love. But I did not know about your dreams then. I thought you willing. I thought you had forgiven me my brutishness." She shook her head. Confusion clouded her mind. "It is true. I found you in the corner of your chamber, in the midst of your dream. When you quieted, I took you back to your bed. But then, you would not let me go. Mayhap it was but my own arrogance, but I thought you wanted me. Truly, love, I did." He tucked a gentle kiss behind her ear. "I did not understand then the powerful hold the dreams had on you, that though you appeared to be awake, you were not. Nor did I know you would remember none of what happened." "And so that is why you were so angry with me that morning." "Aye. I thought it some malicious trick. I did not see until that next night that you only appeared to waken, and you did not even know I was there." Hot humiliation scorched her cheeks. "I do not understand. You surely thought me mad. Why did you not set me aside then?" "I did not want to. And, willing or not, the grounds for annulment were gone."

"No man would have faulted you. You could have said you were defrauded." "But I did not want to. Melisande, I wanted you from the first time I saw you. I would not give you up so easily." She turned her head just enough to catch a glimpse of his huge hand resting on her shoulder, yet not enough to meet his eyes. She could not do that. "Could you not have told me?" "Nay, I had lost your trust, and deservedly so. And though I was innocent by intent, I did take you against your will. But you would not have believed me, then." She had no reply. It was true. She had feared, mistrusted him, even to this hour. And she knew what the dreams did to her, even if she had no memory of them. "You deserve better," she said. She felt hot, salty moisture sliding down her cheeks, a sensation so long unfelt, it was almost unremembered. "There is none better than you." His bristly cheek touched hers. Then he shifted her around to face him, and he caught the tear that flowed down her cheek with the tip of his tongue. He whispered her name again. "Do not hold yourself back from me any longer," he pleaded. "Love me, Melisande." He still wanted her. He truly did. Or did she but fool herself again? How could it possibly be so? Now, he drew her up onto her knees, pressed her against his hard flesh. She felt a shudder roll through him and into her. "Tell me, love. Tell me you give yourself to me." Oh, yes. Eagerly, she returned the kiss he gave her, finding for herself the joy of his taste, the caress of tongues meeting, mating. Yet even more, this was her chance. Aye, this was it. She could use it, at last, to save him. If only she might resist him just long enough. But how, when every fiber of her being cried out to join with him? She had never wanted anything more. Anything but his life. She must do it, for love of him. For love of him, she would do even this. "But then I would not win." "Win? What?" "Your challenge." "Melisande." A moan rumbled within him. "You cannot think of that, now." "But this is too easy. You have not given me a chance to win." He growled, but it was almost a sound of pain. "I only swore I would not force you. And I will not." He used kisses to lure her back. His hands roamed avariciously over her body, kneaded her, held her tightly against his hardness. Ah. She did want all that he used to entice her. Nay. Not yet. She broke off the kiss, sighed, mayhap a bit too pathetically. "I am sorry. I cannot." Her effort to turn away was halted abruptly. Frustration ruled his eyes. "Melisande, what is this?" "Naught but that I had my heart set upon winning the challenge. So I cannot. You will have to force me." "I will not do that. You know I will not." "But you have not even been tested." "I have been tested, sorely. What do you want?"

"Naught but to win the prize, lord. But if you give me no chance-- I have not even begun to tempt you, yet." He threw his head back and dragged in a deep, pained breath. "So be it, then. You may have your prize. Consider it won." "You will force me, then?" "Nay. But I will give you your prize, anyway. Anything. But torment me no longer." She shrugged. "It is all the same. You would not have won, for you are too easy to torment. But I am glad you will not have to suffer." With a ragged rumble from his chest, he dragged her down to the bed, still coaxing. She gave freely, joyously, all of herself. His hands moved along her sides, drove the chemise upward over hips, waist, breasts, inflaming all of her in their passing, drew it over her head, and tossed it. She was freed, to be entirely his. He captured first one breast in his hands, as he licked and suckled, then the other. Lightning shot through her. He fed the deep hunger she had, touching all that begged to be touched, caressed, kneaded, nibbled. Her fingers searched with the same voracious appetite, the elegant, indented curve of his spine, raptured in the restless strength of his muscles, testing first one, then another in her hands. She wanted all of him. She felt the pressure of his knee between her legs, opened herself to him, wrapped herself around him as he pressed urgently against her. She wanted no delay, and urged him on in every way she could imagine. Yet he seemed to hold back. Did he torture her for tormenting him? Aye, she deserved this sweet agony. Once again, he captured her mouth, just as he plunged within her, deeply, until she cried out with the exquisiteness of it. Now, he held still, tense, rigid, and she held him to her tightly, as if he might vanish, should she let go. Yet, that glorious, majestic moment began to fade, and she thought the best must surely be done. It was not. First he seemed to pull away from her, and she wanted to cry out, nay! nay! do not leave me so soon! But just as quickly, he filled her again, renewed that aching passion, so that she thought she would unravel from the sheer pleasure of it. Now gone, now full, each stroke a great, abandoned yearning, filled, and filled, and filled. Deep, urgent strokes, growing ever deeper, harder, saturating her very being, draining it. Filling, emptying, filling again, teasing, tormenting-- nay, he was the great tormenter, not she. He sat back, raised himself to his knees, lifting her hips as he drove ever deeper. She wanted this, yet wanted the feel of him touching her flesh to flesh, and the conflict warred within her, needing, wanting, whatever she did not have. Like a shuddering wave of light it hit her, swept over her unexpectedly, vibrating her entire being in its wake. She felt his own hard thrusting suddenly dissolve rapturously into the wave, with the climactic bursts filling her completely. They seemed to float together on the last wave of ecstasy, drained of all separateness, fitting perfectly together. Never had she felt anything like this. Never had felt so whole, and truly part of another being. She hoped he would never move from where he rested with his head upon his chest. All things must change. Time must pass. Slowly, as their breathing calmed, he shifted to her side, and rolled over on his back, tugging at her to roll with him. She rested her head on the rugged planes of his chest and fingered idly those silky black hairs on his chest that fascinated her.

"Ah, little temptress," he said, caressing her hair, "now that you have won, what great prize will you extract from me?" She raised up on one elbow and teased the tip of a finger over the sensuous curve of his lips. She smiled, a strange, unnatural, awkward imitation of the real thing. Wobbly, like a babe's first steps. He thought he knew her secret. He had uncovered only the second of many layers of secrets, each more dire than the one before. He had forgiven but the merest of them. She had little hope for more. But it was enough. Where once she had feared dying, feared the fires of Hell and the menace that awaited her there, now she was content. It was a different thing, this giving of one's life, for she did it for love. He might never know how much she loved him, might always think her the perfidious one who had cheated his heart from him. But it did not matter. Only that she would give him back his life, bought with her own. She smiled again, suddenly reveling in the perfect rightness of its fit upon her face. She knew now what she would do, and at last, how she would do it. Finally, she gave her answer. "The purple cloak," she said.

CHAPTER 19 Alain bolted up from the bed, lost his balance at its edge, and nearly slid to the floor. He stared. "What?" "The purple cloak," she repeated, as if it made perfect sense. "You detest the thing. What do you want it for?" "It does not matter. You have promised me whatever I ask." "I did think you meant something logical, mayhap, the moon." "The moon? But why would I ask for something impossible?" He had forgotten for a moment that she had no sense of humor. His sarcasm went the same way of teasing. Over her head. But the cloak? When she had made such a great show of dislike? "Is it because it was your mother's?" "Nay. For Fyren gave it to her." "And you despise your father. Aye, that I understand. But why do you want it?" "I do mean it ill, if that is what you ask." He sat back on his heels, on the feather mattress beside her. "Melisande, I do not mean it as an insult, but you do strange things. And of all the strange things you have done, this is the strangest." "Think of it as a superstition," she replied. Then she did not mean to tell him. And she was stubborn enough that she would not. He would more likely find out by accident than from insistent probing. Well, it did not matter. He would truly give her anything. He would indeed give anything for the way she smiled at him. Aye, a smile. She had at last given him a smile. And a few moments before, he had kissed real tears from her cheek. Both were more precious to him than anything he had ever owned. If she wanted the cloak, for whatever reason, she would have it. "It is yours, lady," he said, and once again drew her into his arms. "And you are mine," he added.

"Aye." She nestled perfectly against him. A perfect, warm, and loving fit that made his body stir all over again. He would happily stay in bed with her all day, were it not for the sudden pangs of emptiness gnawing at his stomach. A strange sharpness to them, stronger he had felt before. "But come," he said, "my stomach feels as empty as a starving hound's. Mayhap we can steal a bite before mass." He gave her a quick kiss to urge her to hurry, for his stomach seemed to be getting emptier even as he spoke. He hurried over to the peg where he had hung his tunic and lifted it from there. Pain struck his head like a hammer, and whirled around inside his skull. He leaned against the wall until it went away. A passing thing. The morning's strenuous exercise, mayhap. She had seen it. He saw that in her face. Well, it was gone. He gave her back a silly smile for her worried frown. When he finished with his tunic and hose, he helped her with her laces, and ran his fingers lovingly down her sides as a remembrance of what they had just shared. "I'll have you back in this bed before nightfall," he warned her, as he escorted her out the door onto the balcony. Once again she rewarded him with an adoring smile. "I knew not that a woman could feel that kind of pleasure," she replied. She laid her hand atop his arm as they walked, this time with her fingers moving in minute caresses. "You did not? Then there is much more for you to learn. I think we will suit each other well." "I suppose it must be considered a sin to have such great fun." "The priests say it is. But what do they know? They are the ones who vowed to be celibate, not we." She laughed. Barely a double-syllabled chuckle. But she laughed. He felt as if he were king of all Christendom. Then he collapsed to the balcony floor. *** She screamed and screamed as she caught him, grappled for a hold before he tumbled down the balcony's steps. He hung limp and heavy in her arms, and she knotted fists of his tunic in her hands, but his heavy body was quickly slipping from her. "Someone come! Someone help me!" she cried. "Help me!" Gerard burst through the chamber door. He bounded for the steps and shoved her aside as he grabbed at Alain. The Norman's head lolled backward, and his eyes rolled about in their sockets. "What is it?" Gerard demanded. "A wound we did not see?" "No wound," she replied. "I know not what it is." But she knew. She had run out of time. Chrétien came running, his eyes wild at the sight of Alain draped limply over Gerard's shoulder. He raced for the door to the middle chamber and threw it open. Gerard carried him through the door, and eased him onto the bed. "What has happened?" "He collapsed. I came when I heard the lady's screams." "Lady?" Terror clung to Chrétien's eyes. "Aye. I think I know the malady." "Can you cure it?" "I know not. It is a dangerous one. You must make him do exactly as I say, and hold him down if he does not stay in the bed, for he must rest."

"Whatever you ask, it shall be done," said Chrétien. It would look strange to him, she knew. But she must take the chance that he would accept her word. "We must take all his clothes and wash them in water, as hot as can be done. If they shrink, so be it. We can always make more. The sheets, too. And I want him bathed in warm water, three times each day. The water must be discarded." What else? What would draw the poison from his body? "Milk. He must have as much milk as we can get into him. But naught else. Save broths, mayhap a little bread." "Milk?" Chrétien looked dubious. "Milk. No wine nor ale. We must work the bad humours from his body." "And this will cure him?" She bit on her lip. Would it? Or was she already too late? In this way, she had lost her mother, for she had not recognized the poison soon enough. But at least his skin did not yet have the horrid tinge of yellow. "I know not. But do not waste any time." Alain murmured a small groan at the sound of her voice, and his eyes opened, looking confused. "What happened?" Melisande lifted his eyelid with her thumb to study his eye. No yellow tinge there, either. "It is a malady I've seen but once, lord. It will pass if you will let me treat it." "It is naught but an empty stomach, lady. Let me up." Her fearful glance swung to Chrétien, begging his help. "Nay, Alain. It is not a simple thing. You must follow her instructions, else I fear for you. You are not one to faint like a lady in her first months." "It is naught, I say. Let me up." Chrétien's big hand lashed out and held the lord down at his chest. "I will knock you flat if I must. But you see, you have not even the strength to resist my hand. It is not like you, for you should have cold-cocked me by now. I think she is right, Alain. I will not lose you for your stubbornness." "I, too," said Gerard. "And I can call upon any in this hall for help." Alain gave them a disgusted frown. He sighed. Melisande knew she had won the first round. She suspected she was not the only one who had noticed the odd, occasional trembling of his hands, sporadic loss of balance and headaches. She had seen the worried look on Chrétien's face, and had known he, too, sensed the weakness in a normally strong man. She had not understood before now what that weakness could have cost him in battle. She had to treat him, yet at the same time she had to get rid of the cloak before he changed his mind. If Fyren had not lied, then he might at any time demand it back from her, being unable to break the eternal bond to it that would destroy him. What was sorcery, and what was not? Was this? Her mother had wound herself in the cloak, clung tenaciously to it until her last breath, when Melisande had finally pried it from her fingers. She would not let Fyren claim Alain, too. Never! She sat beside him, keeping watch next to Chrétien, who refused to leave the chamber. Kitchen women brought up buckets of hot water and the little soap pot from the bath house. The bed was stripped beneath him and clothes from him while he remained in the bed, grumbling

indignantly. His dignity was of little importance to her now. He balked at the milk. It did him no good. Chrétien offered to funnel it down him. "I am hungry, lady. I want a decent meal." he demanded. She sat down on the edge of the bed, and stroked suggestively at the hairs on his chest. "In three days," she said, "you may have a real meal again, and everything else you want, if you do as I say. If not, you may never have one again. Or anything else." She allowed her hand to stray provocatively beneath the covers just far enough to be sure he got the point. "Melisande." She flipped her eyebrows. "Everything," she said with a sly grin. Aye, it was not fair. But she had to use everything she had now. If only she had not waited so long. *** It was called the Butter Tubs. A great hole in the ground that went straight down into emptiness. Common word had it that it was a hole into Hell, but she did not believe that. A person could stand by and listen until rocks hit the bottom, and Hell must surely be much farther down. Still, it gave her pause. No one knew how deep the hole was, only that it seemed to go straight down into the earth. If it did go all the way down to Hell, she could be giving the Devil back his own hideous prize. But if there were such a hole into Hell, Satan would come up it every day. Everyone knew Satan did not want to be in the Hell he had made. He only wanted souls to join him there in misery. The bottom of the Butter Tubs was the only place she knew where she could be certain no human being would ever go. But how to get out of the castle? Gerard and Lynet had her chamber, where the hidden passage was, and the bolt hole was blocked. There was no other way, then, but to walk out the gate, as if it were something she did every day. She would claim to search for herbs for the lord's malady. She found a basket to carry the detested cloak and a bundle of food for the few days it would take to get there and back. She wandered down through the village, talking to whoever stopped her to ask of their kin who had gone with Hugh to build and defend the new motte. She told them she had seen it, and they were safe within it. She hoped she did not lie. She made for the beck, then hid herself among the trees that lined it. There were few to see her, for these days few strayed from the safety of the village and its castle. When darkness came, she was long gone. By the light of the half moon, she made her way south along the road toward Gerard's castle, keeping the river in sight. Several miles farther, she turned at a crossroad to the east and hiked up into the rugged fells. Her strength began to flag, and she stopped to rest. From her food bundle, she pulled the cheese and bread she had cut for herself that morning, and savored small portions of each. She wrapped herself in her green cloak against the chill night air, lay back against the dark rock and rested her head. But she dared not tarry long. By morning, Alain would be enraged. He would add up all the lies she had told him, her desertion, and now, the missing cloak. And he would send his knights to patrol every inch of his demesne until she was found. That they would find her, she knew. She merely must reach the Butter Tubs first. After that, well, she could not change her fate. She closed her eyes.

Dawn streaked the sky when she opened them again. She jumped, startled. She should not have slept so long. In a mere few hours, a good horseman could ride the entire distance she had walked. She must get to the Butter Tubs before they caught her, or the cloak would fall once again into human hands and continue to execute its deadly purpose. She wolfed down chunks of the cheese, packed up her belongings, and urged her weary body to continue its quest. Seeing no sign of riders, she hurried up toward the ridge, where she might have a better vantage. Leaving the broad, rounded-bottomed valley, the fells suddenly grew steeper, and she battled fatigue desperately. She should not have been so tired, not so early. She was not a weak woman. But she could not stop to rest. They would be on her too quickly. Only a moment, then. She knelt by a small rill and scooped up water in her hand to drink. She tasted bile as she drank, as her stomach revolted. Nay! She could not be ill. She had to do this. She struggled to her feet, and tried to force them to move. They seemed anchored where she stood. Her head swam. She fell to her knees, groped among the large rocks by the stream bed to regain her balance. Gorge rose in her throat again, and she fought to hold it back, but lost the struggle. Gasping, she scooped water into her mouth to wash it clean. Surely it would pass, now. It was not the sickness that came with the cloak, and how could it be any other? She tried to rise again. Nausea, black and red, swirled through her, overwhelmed her. A flash of purple against the whirl of colors. Fyren! It is Fyren’s doing! Fyren comes! Nay, he's dead. With the destruction of the cloak, I will end his hideous reign. Again, the flash of purple. Black-red swirls. Black. She fell to the earth.

CHAPTER 20 "Where did you find her?" "South, on the eastern fells." Chrétien, still in his saddle, lowered Melisande's limp body into Alain's arms, then dismounted. "She has not been conscious since we found her. Mayhap it was a food poison, as she had retched." Alain adjusted the weight of his wife's slack body in his arms and started for the paired doors of the hall with Chrétien at his side. "Yet it would not explain unconsciousness." "It is true. I thought mayhap another poison, as well." "An irony if so, as she is the mistress of poison." "Alain, you do not truly think she poisoned you?" "It was also an unusual illness, did you not say?" "Aye. But if she meant for you to die, would she not have waited to see that you did?" "And if she had cared for me as she said, would she not have waited around for me to live before she hurried off?" Alain carried Melisande through the hall's doors, to the wooden stairs beyond the dais, still feeling the ravages of the strange illness that had sapped his strength. "Let me carry her up," said Chrétien.

"She is my responsibility. You have done enough by finding her." He labored up the stairs, wishing fleetingly that he had not put so much stock in his injured pride. It would have hurt little to allow Chrétien the task. But that was what had suffered most, his pride. To wake and find her gone, without a word. Mayhap she had hurried off to join some mysterious lover, the one he had so trustingly pretended did not exist. What a fool he was. At the top of the stairs, he paused and caught his breath again before taking her into the private chamber that Lynet had hastily vacated. Chrétien ran ahead and pulled back the down quilt, so that he could lay her down on the bed. "Call for Nelda. Mayhap she will know what to do for her. At least, to get her in some clean garments." "Aye. She is very cold, Alain. I think she had lain there a long time." "Mayhap, as she was three days gone. Or she may have already accomplished whatever hellish task she was bent on, and was returning." "Returning would mean an intent to come back to you." "I do not doubt she thinks me that gullible." "Could you not hear her story first, Alain?" "How so, Chrétien? She has deceived me from the beginning. What is the difference in one more story?" "Only listen. I ask no more." Oh, he would listen. He knew he would. But this time she would not convince him. For he had learned at last, she was as wicked as her father. "Go for Nelda," he said. He watched the still figure of the woman who for such a little while had been his wife. Against his own will he reached down and stroked a finger across her cheek. *** She had lain three days in her strange stupor, not even knowing how to swallow the drops of water Nelda squeezed into her mouth without someone stroking at her throat. Already she began to look thin. And Alain had stood and watched, waiting for change that it seemed would never come. If she were awake and treating another, she would know what to do, but none here knew. Lynet and Nelda did whatever they thought might help, but they were as helpless as he. His throat tightened and ached. God help him, he did not want her to die. She tossed about fretfully. Occasionally an odd word would come from her mouth, that seemed connected to nothing, like the strange utterances from her dreams. Her voice sounded dry and harsh. She must be horribly thirsty. But she showed some inclination to swallow now, and Nelda carefully increased the water, feeding it from a spoon. "Don't," she had said, several times. And once, "Don't touch it." What awful thing did she dream of now? Was it still those macabre terrors of dark, cold places? Or of fires where demons danced, and Fyren came up from Hell? Whatever perfidy might be hers, he could not persuade himself that she had invented those horrors of the night to draw him in. Mayhap he had been wrong. Mayhap she really had been possessed by demons all this time. "Please! Don't let him!" He turned to look at her again, her face flushed and feverish, her throat parched, gravelly. Almost as soon as her body had warmed, the fever had come upon her. "Come now, love, just another spoonful, there's a girl."

Nelda cajoled another bare mouthful of moisture into Melisande's mouth. "Don't let him touch it," she said. "I won't, sweeting, don't you worry. Now, take some more." Again she gulped a spoonful, then fell back to the pillow, her head to the side, eyes closed. He had never seen an illness like this one. It was certainly not the same as whatever had infected him. Sweet Jesus, he would make any bargain with God for her life. He ached so deeply within himself, he thought he might turn inside out with the pain. He left the chamber and the hall, and trudged up the steps to the top of the curtain wall, where he stood on the allure and surveyed the construction in progress. But he seemed to see nothing. Or nothing held his attention. "What news of Rufus?" he asked Chrétien. "He is delayed. The heavy rain has bogged down his carts. But he meets no resistance." "It is too easy for him," said Alain. "He will be bored." "Aye. Supply problems cannot be compared with a good battle or two, not for Rufus." He leaned on the wall, staring out over the countryside, where everything carried the bright impression of a fine spring. True, the rain had muddied the roads, but roads in this part of the isle were too primitive to be of much use, anyway. The crops prospered, however, and the apple trees bloomed. "How fares the lady?" asked Chrétien. "Restless. Nelda has been able to get some water into her." "The fever?" "Still there." "I think whatever it is, she is also ill from exposure." "Mayhap. But we can do naught else but treat what we can see. Nelda has some knowledge of the lady's methods." "What will you do with her, Alain?" "I know not." He did not want to continue the conversation, so turned to continue his walk on the allure. Chrétien walked for a while with him, then went about his duties. Eventually Alain returned to the chamber, to watch a little longer. "Don't let-- --kill him," she said. "Don't touch--" or "Don't kill--", she said, later. But never anything that made sense. He wondered briefly if she had made a pact with someone to kill him. Dougal, mayhap, or Malcolm. The opportunities had been there. And why the cloak? Did it have some mysterious power? Was it a sorcerer's tool of some sort? Her obsession and revulsion had been puzzling from the beginning. Was she a witch? He remembered Anwealda's dying word. He sighed and once again left the chamber. *** Melisande sat on the narrow sill of the double-shuttered window of her chamber and idly observed the movement of soldier and villein in the lower bailey. There seemed to be a greater bustle about than usual. She deduced that Rufus would come soon. For her, the war was over. Cyneric and Anwealda both dead, following Fyren into Hell, and Dougal chased off. The Norman held her castle and people. He was a good lord, and for the time he had left would see to their welfare along with his own, and administer his justice fairly. But she could not save him now. Only the truth remained now, and he would not believe it.

She heard the key turn in the creaking lock. The door opened to admit Lynet, anxious and tentative. "I am glad to see you well, lady," said Lynet, and hastened to her side. Melisande tried to manage a smile, but could not find one. "Aye. Well enough for what comes." "Oh, lady, I do not think you a witch. Nor does Gerard." "It does not matter what you think, or I. The accusation itself is enough." "Gerard refuses to leave. He says he will demand a trial by combat, for he must defend your honor." Melisande startled. "Oh! He must not. You cannot let him." "I cannot stop him," said Lynet, shaking her head. "But you must. Tell him I demand it." "He will not listen to you this time, lady. He is determined." "Nay, Lynet. He must not. Do you not understand? If he defends me, he must fight Alain, and one of them will die. I could not bear it." "I will tell him what you say, but I know he will not change his mind." "Send him to me, then." "The lord will not allow it. Only Nelda or I may see you." "Lynet, then you must find a way to persuade him. Think on this, that what I wanted has come about, and there is someone to replace Fyren that is worthy. Fyren's evil is gone, at last. But if they fight and one dies, there will be a division, and the Scots will overrun us again. All will be lost. None has ever been vindicated from a charge of witchcraft, Lynet. Gerard must not waste himself on something he cannot change." "But it is not fair!" "Naught is fair, save for those with power. I am but a woman. I should not have sought to reach beyond it. I was doomed from the beginning." "Oh, lady, I do not believe that." "Please believe it, Lynet. Do not allow Gerard to sacrifice himself needlessly, or to kill my-Alain." Melisande sighed, seeing the hopelessness of it. She stood and walked away from the window. "Come, Lynet, help me with this kirtle. I am well enough now to wear more than this thin chemise." Lynet dressed her in the bright yellow kirtle with a blue border, laced up the sleeves, and helped her with the blue surcoat. She reached for the yellow wimple, but Melisande shook her head. She had always hated wimples. She would not wear one now. Instead, she put on her amber necklace. "Some think amber is made by witches," she mused. "Let them think I am that clever." "'Tis much better, lady." "Aye, thank you. But you must go now, Lynet, lest they think I have cursed your unborn child." "You do not frighten me, lady. I fought against Cyneric, recall?" At that, she could smile. "Aye. I know your courage, Lynet. I wish I had as much." Lynet curled both lips inward tightly between her teeth, and her eyes began to tear. She spun about and ran to the door, and wrung her hands waiting for the guard to open it. Poor Lynet, to think that life might be fair. Melisande returned to the window and her idling pastime.

From her eastern window, she watched as the bright day faded, its feathery twilight clouds mirroring the last vivid colors from the western sky. Without seeing the sunset, she knew rain would soon fall. Mayhap tomorrow. She could not find the strength to care. A small meal sat untouched on the little table next to her storage chest. The little stool on which she usually sat was still pushed beneath the table, for she remained at the window and watched the last of twilight fade. The key creaked in the lock again. She glanced up, then away before she saw who entered. She knew by the sound of his footsteps, of the clink of his mail, and the squeak in his leather scabbard. She need not look. "You have not eaten." Bitter anger tinged his voice. "I am not hungry." "You have not eaten for days, Melisande. You cannot expect to get well." "You would merely have me hale and hearty for my execution. An unimportant task." "I have said naught about an execution." "You need say naught." "I want some answers, Melisande." She turned, caught a glimpse of his eyes, and quickly turned away, lest he see the pain in hers. "Who is your lover?" "I have none." "You cannot deny that you had one once." "Not a lover." "Are you a witch?" A wry twist curled over her mouth. "Nay." "Then why did you take the cloak?" "I asked for it. You gave it to me. It was mine to do with as I chose." Yet, it did not surprise her that he had taken it back. She had never wanted to believe in spells, but she could no longer deny the cloak had bound itself to him. "For what purpose?" "To destroy it." "I do not believe that. You wanted it for something. What power does it have?" The power to seduce its wearer until he dies of it. But it was useless to say it. It would only convict her. "It has no magic, that I know." "That is untrue. I want the truth." She folded her arms, then unfolded them, stood, and jutted out her chin in defiance. Her hands gripped together so tightly her fingers hurt. He wanted the truth? Nay, he wanted confirmation of what he had already decided was the truth. "Tell me the truth for once, Melisande." She sat back to the window ledge, stared hopelessly out at the darkening valley. But why did it matter? She lost nothing more by saying it. "It is poisoned. It killed my mother. And it would have killed you." "Do you think I will believe that?" "You asked for the truth, not what you would believe. You asked and I will tell you. Whether or not you listen or believe is for you to choose." "Then tell it."

"This place, where Fyren built his castle, was once a monastery, that was sacked long ago by the Viking army that roamed the land in those days. Fyren was fascinated with it, and came day after day to explore it. Being afraid of fire, he did not trust wooden buildings and sought to use its stone to build his own castle on its site. "Eventually, he found a hidden chamber, and in it, some ancient books. Most were written in Greek, which he could not read, but some were Latin, and others had been partially translated into Latin. In them, he found things that had been known to the ancients, but long forgotten. One of them was the secret of the purple dye." She glanced at him. He folded his arms over his chest. Nay, he would not believe. She sighed and continued. "There is a stone, called Dragon's Blood, an ore of arsenic. When powdered, it makes a dye that produces that wondrous reddish-purple color. People become so enchanted with it that they will not stop wearing it, even when they become very ill." "You are saying that the cloak made me ill." "Aye, that and none other. My mother learned of-- something Fyren was doing that struck her with horror. She demanded he stop --what he was doing, or she would expose him to the world. "Fyren never cared what my mother thought, but I suppose he could not afford the exposure. Or mayhap he simply grew tired of her. He needed no excuse. So he had the cloak made for her, and persuaded me to give it to her as a peace offering. "Poor mother actually believed him. He, who had not touched her for years, save to abuse her, she now saw as wonderful, repentant, and loving. He laughed as she died, still huddled in the cloak. I was sure he had poisoned her, but I did not know how. He told me after she was dead." "I fail to see how a cloak could be poisoned." "There are some poisons that can be taken in through the skin. And the cloak has a powdery residue that rubs off on its victim's hands. Then what the hands touch goes to the mouth. It can even be breathed. "I thought when Fyren lay dying and asked for the cloak as a shroud, that it would be buried with him, at last be gone forever, and no others would be victims of his crimes. But I was a fool. Even with his last breath, he schemed. In wrapping it around his body, he had me place the cloak where you would be sure to see it. And you would have to take it because it was so beautiful, and because it had been his. It made a perfect symbol of your victory. So even from his grave, he reached out to snatch another victim." "A wonderful story. Had you been a man, you could have made a fascinating bard. But explain, if the dye is so poisonous, how the dyers survived." "They did not. He killed them, and threw them into the deep pits in the cavern below the castle." "Where, of course, they cannot be found. And who embroidered the gold and silver thread?" "It was done before the dyeing, though it would not have bothered him to kill them, also." "And how is it that all these people disappear, yet no one says a word?" "You have only to ask, now that he is dead. Hardly a family in the village has not lost someone to his cruelty, some simply never seen again. So they might suspect, but none dared say." "And I suppose you can also explain why you felt you must cross the countryside with it." "I needed to destroy it." "Burn it. Bury it." "The arsenic rises with the smoke, and poisons the air." Again she looked back at him. He had not moved. "Anything buried could be dug up. And arsenic is a preservative. It could last

forever. I even thought of the caverns below. But water flows through them, and comes out in the becks and rivers. It would poison the water." "Then, what did you mean to do?" "There is a deep hole called the Butter Tubs. It is like a cavern, and it goes down into the earth a very long way. I meant to wrap a rock in it, and drop it in." "You could not have just told me this cloak was poisonous?" "You would not believe it." "I do not believe you now." "Of course." She felt her nostrils flare. Never would he believe her again. "I admit, I was a fool." His voice grated with his bitterness. "I did believe you cared for me. I was ready to forgive anything, Melisande. But now you tell me such a preposterous story that I cannot. Nay, I think it is something else entirely, that you have a lover, and you sought somehow to get the cloak to him, for whatever reason I cannot fathom. But now you dare to tell me you did this to save me?" "I did." He shook his head, and his jaw set bitterly. "I think not. Rufus comes soon. I will let him decide what to do with you." He whirled away, punctuating his decision, and left through the door. The key clinked and squeaked in the lock. She shook away the tears. She had never been one for them, before, and did not intend to start weeping now. But she had lost it all. Had she not become ill with whatever that strange thing was, she might have made it there. All for naught. Now he had the cloak back again, and this time the poison would win, for he would be too stubborn to admit to its effect until it was too late. *** He had never heard such a farfetched story. A poison cloak. How dare she think he would believe such rot? He had nearly slammed the door, but refused to give her such satisfaction. Alain stalked down the wooden stairs, his long spurs occasionally catching behind him and threatening to trip him. In the hall, no one spoke, yet everyone eyed him warily. Just as well. He had no desire to spout pleasant banter. He snatched a jug from a startled servant and gulped down a good portion of its sour wine, made a face, and finished it off. How dare she? He slammed the jug down on the trestle table. The jug clattered and wobbled on its base before finally settling down. Well, at least the witchcraft explained her peculiar behavior. Explained a lot of things. He had been right there and watched her treat Robert's slashed ribs, and he had never seen such a thing. But nay. He had been right there. He had seen every step, stood by as she ransacked her brain for a way to do it. He had even made his own suggestions. There had been nothing illogical or magical about it. It made sense from beginning to end. An example of her brilliance, not magic. But it would explain her mysterious disappearance from a locked chamber on their wedding night. Although he had quickly deciphered that one, and caught her in the bolt hole. More likely, she simply knew something he didn't. This place had many secrets. Jean Nouel's death must surely be attributed to one. And Anwealda's appearance in his chamber must be explained in the same way. But that was mayhap the oddest. She might have smelled a snuffed candle. That fleeting scent was certainly distinctive. But she woke up knowing someone was there. Was it a second

sight, or had a dream awakened her at just the right time? But he too had sensed the scent of a man in the dark chamber. And he would explain away everything, if he merely gave himself long enough at it. Had he loved her all that much, that he would try to overlook everything? But there were other things, many little times, too. That odd revulsion, yet obsession with the cloak, and getting it from him. He had thought it amusing once, not insidious. And the way she had lurched at him, knocking his prized horn cup from his hand. She had tried to pass it off as clumsiness, but she could not have accidentally fallen in that way. He could still see her face, stunned by horror, the instant before she dashed at him. All he had done was to wipe the rim-Sweet Jesus! He had wiped at a smudge on the rim of the cup, then raised the cup to drink. To take the poison into his mouth! Dangerous or not, she had believed it. Could she really have been trying just to keep him alive, all this time? Then why not have told him? Ah, yes. Just as she had said. He would not have believed her. The entire thing, a dying man's evil revenge, in such a preposterous way? Even here, in the manor where she was so well loved, there were those who whispered of witchcraft. He had been more willing to believe that than the explanation she had given. "Chrétien!" Chrétien looked up, startled, from the far corner of the dais where he talked with Thomas. "Aye?" "Tell me again where you found her." "To the south, crossing the eastern fells." "Know you of the Butter Tubs?" "Butter tubs?" "A hole in the ground." "Nay." "I know of it," said Thomas. "'Tis a hole into Hell, some say." "Where?" Lines furrowed Thomas's brow. "East in the fells, toward Muker Common." "How do you get there?" "Go south, through the Mallerstang, then east across the vale, and climb the fells to the pass." "Knowing where Chrétien found her, might she have been going there?" Thomas puzzled but a fleet moment. "Aye, 'twould be there." "Sweet Jesus!" He threw himself out of the chair and raced up the staircase. "Open it!" he shouted at the guard, who fumbled at the lock, dropped the key, and managed it on the second try. He dashed into the chamber. Empty. Gone again. He searched frantically about. If she escaped this time, she surely would be gone forever. At the far corner, he heard a small scraping noise, and his eyes darted toward it. A hole in the wall. A hidden bolt hole. A narrow gap not more than a few feet tall closed as a panel slid into place, and the small hand that closed it disappeared inside, beyond the wall. So that was how she did it. The candle was gone, too. Of course. It would be black as pitch in there. He dashed out the door, intending to retrieve a candle from his chamber, but whirled around and grabbed the reed torch in the bracket beside the guard.

He found the panel easily. It was meant to resemble the remainder of the plastered wall, where it sat between exposed timbers. It slid and lifted, and left a small hole a few feet square, with blackness beyond. The torch lit a series of descending steps, hewn out of the stone. Alain crouched down and crawled through the tiny portal, onto the topmost step. Above him, a hard rock ceiling forced him to remain crouched until he descended several steps. Looking down, he saw no light ahead of him. Had she escaped him? He would deserve it. He had not even taken the time to learn where the bolt hole came out. Torn between a need for speed and caution, he felt his way down the steps to a sort of floor, where the cavern opened out. He looked about, saw nothing. Frustrated, he set the torch down on the step, and trained his eyes to the dark. To his far right he caught a glint of light, that then was gone. If he called out to her, she would flee. She would not trust him, now. He shuffled his feet along the irregular path, testing his footing on the tricky, unpredictable cavern, all the while searching for the candle's light. There it was. A little to his left. It meant climbing over a tall ledge. But there was a way around, to the right. He sidled that way and spotted a small footprint in the gritty cavern floor. That path came to an abrupt halt. He set down the torch to search for the light of her candle within the darkness. Ahead, he could see it, yet the path, seemed blocked in all ways. Turning around, he saw what he had missed, a narrow passage almost obscured by a huge pillar of stone. He slipped around it sideways. She moved on ahead of him, seeming to be oblivious to his presence. The candle's flame rose as if she climbed up steps. He followed, and came upon a series of natural terraces that led up to a strange rock that looked like it had grown there, merging with another that stretched down from the cavern's ceiling like a waterfall frozen into stone. Behind it a light flickered, then blazed into brightness. A torch glowed yellow and pink through the thinner surfaces of the rock curtain, as if the stone were no more than cloth. Quietly, he mounted the stone terraces as they swung around in an arc, and rising, came to an end at the edge of the stone curtain. He stood there, transfixed by what he saw. Through passageway hewn from the natural opaline rock, a room was formed within the stone. The floor was nearly flat and level, but the walls draped and oozed like body organs torn from a corpse. Stone pillars here and there, of odd sizes and shapes, or half-complete and dangling, seemed grown into their places. Two great, ancient tables dominated the chamber, and were littered with jars of glass or pottery, small and large. A small writing desk with a stool seemed almost lost against the complex jumble that formed the far wall. Melisande stood poised near one table, hands folded neatly before her, as if preparing for something. Her fiery gaze raked over the tables and their contents, assessing. Then her jaw set tightly. Her eyes narrowed to angry slits. With a fierce sweep, her arm swung over one table, dashing pots and jars, sending them tumbling, crashing, to the floor. Another swoop sent more flying smashing against the hard wall of obscenities in a chaos of color and acrid smells. "You're dead!" she shrieked. "You're dead! You can't hurt us anymore! You're dead! I killed you! Do you hear me? Dead!" She grabbed a glass vial and dashed it against the far wall. Then another. Streaks of thick yellow and brown oozed down the surface into crevices and over bulges. "You can't have him! I won't let you! You're dead, and you can't come back!"

Pottery and glass, flung in fury, crashed against walls, floors, pitched one after another. She gave the table a great heave and threw it on its side. Her wrathful gaze descended on the writing desk, and she stalked it like a wolf after a hare, closing in like a killer. Her hands reached out to the great book atop it, ready to grasp, tear it to shreds. She froze. Her eyes grew huge. A quill pen lay atop the book, beside a fresh and ever-growing blot of ink. She swallowed a shriek, and bolted backward against the far wall. Fyren stepped out of the shadows.

CHAPTER 21 Melisande shoved herself backward as if she might force herself into the stone, her eyes riveted on the man in the hooded cloak before her. His dark beard was heavily streaked with silver. His bright blue eyes, so much like Melisande's, glowed with malice. His mouth curled upward only on one side, an evil parody of a smile. "I heard you, girl." "You cannot be here! It is a dream!" "You have come to me, again. I told you, you would. But you betrayed me, girl. I am not sure if I will forgive you. Leave the Norman now, and we will take back what is ours." "Nay, I will not! You are dead!" "So you have said, but it is not so. Have you so easily forgotten who I am? Did you think you could kill the son of Satan? You belong to me, girl. You cannot escape." Melisande sidled along the toppled oak table, her back to the wall, toward the doorway where Alain stood. Alain put his hand on the hilt of his sword, praying for her to come closer. The evil smile broadened on Fyren's face, yet curiously tilted up only on one side. His left hand lunged for Melisande, and she sprang away with a desperate gasp. "You cannot escape me. You belong to me, not that pathetic Norman who dares usurp my place. He will die for taking you. You are mine. Satan gave you to me." "You will not kill him! I have told him all!" "You have told him naught. He would not let you live if he knew. Only I can save you. Come back, girl, and I will let you live. When I take the English throne, I will make you my queen." He could not mean-- his own daughter? Black rage flooded through Alain. With a roar from the bottom of his gut, he drew his sword and hurled himself into the stone chamber. Startled, Fyren leaped back. "Behind me, Melisande. Hurry." Poised to strike, he menaced Fyren with the blade. She seemed stunned in her place. "Move!" Fyren grabbed for her, but Alain threw himself between them, his sword threatening Fyren's throat. Keeping her back to the stone wall, she shuffled sideways, came up beside him. "Behind me!" he demanded. But as she shifted, Fyren caught her arm and jerked her before him. Melisande screamed, clawed at Fyren. Alain slashed his blade at Fyren, but Melisande was too close. He limited his stroke for fear of hurting her.

She must have remembered Lynet. She collapsed like a dropped rag to her knees before the dismayed Fyren could stop her. Alain swung, yet dared not swing hard. The blade barely grazed across the man's left arm. As blood oozed from the slash, Fyren dropped his prize. With a garbled curse, he hurled an object at the stone floor. A loud bang exploded in Alain's ears and caustic smoke and rock flew in all directions. Alain grabbed Melisande through the choking smoke. Despite her scream, she scrambled toward him. He could not see her, even beside him, fumbling through and choking in the same smoke as he. With a punishing grasp of her arm, he groped toward where he hoped the exit was. "Out of here. Run!" he shouted as he coughed. She pulled his arm, and he followed her lead. They touched the column of stone, probed with their hands and feet, worked their way around it. He stumbled at the first step she had already taken. "Watch your feet!" she screamed. How the bloody saints could he do that? He could not even see his feet. "Steps." Aye, steps. He struggled along the little terraces, trying to remember their shapes, feeling the edges before him, while she guided him by the arm he held. The acrid smoke thinned, air freshened. He could see only blackness. Without either candle or rush light, they were doomed in the darkness. "We're lost," he said. "Nay, I know the way." Her voice was little more than an excited whisper. "Without a torch?" "Aye. Hurry." She tugged at the arm that held her, urgently moving, he could not tell where, and his feet stumbled as he tried to find his footing. Sweet Jesus, he could be upside down and not know it! She grabbed his hand, placed it against a rock face, and led him by his arm as he groped with feet and hands for the pathway. She guided him through the nightmare of total darkness, creeping on hands and knees, squeezing through narrow spaces, tripping, falling, gasping. After an eternity of blindness, they reached the steps hewn into the stone. "Twenty-seven steps," she whispered. "Aye." "Duck your head at the top." He crawled up the steps, feeling for each one as it came, his only salvation the hard gasping of the terrified woman ahead of him. He almost forgot to count the steps. But she counted aloud. "Eleven, twelve, thirteen--" He let her count them. It would be less confusing. With each step, he reached out to touch her ahead of him, needing the reassurance that she had not vanished in that cloying blackness. "Twenty, twenty-one, twenty-two--" Still there. Solid steps of stone, cool and damp, beneath his hands and knees. Melisande's precious foot ahead of him. "Duck your head. Twenty-six, Twenty-seven. Stop." He halted where he was, probed the limits of the stone and waited the duration of a millennium for her to manipulate the concealing panel that would lead them back into sanity.

Painful bright light flooded his eyes. As the darkness receded, the chamber before him became slowly visible, and she crawled through the hole. He crawled behind her with all the speed he could muster. He stood up. Before him, she trembled, gasped as if she could not get air into her lungs, and her knees folded beneath her. He caught her, supporting her weight. Violent trembling racked her body. His lips found hers, forced her into a compelling kiss, deep and hard. He shook as badly as she did. He kissed again, again demanding all of her attention until at last she sighed and her body relaxed. "Don't think," he whispered, "don't think of anything." And again he kissed her, a gentle and tender caress on her lips, to her cheek, to the lids of blue eyes that closed in anticipation. Until the most crippling of the fear disintegrated. "Guard!" he yelled, as he scooped her up in his arms and carried her to her bed. The man stepped into the room, his mouth gaping. "I want Chrétien, Thomas, and Gerard, immediately." The guard whirled around and sped out the door. Then he tightened his embrace once again, not wanting to release her for even the space of a breath. "Ah, love, forgive me. I was wrong not to trust you." "He cannot be alive!" she said, and her voice still trembled. "He said he was the Spawn of Satan. It must be true!" "He is but a man." "But he was dead! I killed him!" "How?" "With poison. He took an antidote every day, so that he could not be poisoned. I found one he knew not about, and put it in his antidote." "Mayhap it was not enough to do the job." "But he was dead. I waited until he died. Thomas found no pulse. And we buried him." "And I'll wager if we dug up the coffin, we would find it full of rocks. But we did leave the corpse alone overnight. The coffin was found nailed shut the next morning, but no one thought anything about it then. Mayhap he was so nearly dead that he appeared so." He could see she did not believe his wild conjectures. He did not really believe it himself. It left too many questions unanswered. But there had to be another answer. Chrétien and Gerard raced into the chamber, and stood there, astonished to see him holding the lady from whom he had recently been estranged. Gerard's gaze flew to the corner of the chamber and the gaping hole in the wall. "What is that?" "That," he said, is the true Hole into Hell. Block it off, if you must use every stone block in the curtain wall." Thomas rushed in the door, gasping from a hard run. "Close the door." Thomas obeyed. "Fyren lives," he said simply. "Nay, it is impossible," replied Thomas. His gentle eyes widened as he gulped down fear. "He lives. He is in the cavern below us. I know not how, but it is so." "Then he is Satan's spawn, as he said."

"I do not believe it. I sliced him with my sword, and he bled. But then he threw something at the ground, and it made a loud noise and much smoke. I have never seen the like." "I have," said Melisande, still taking deep breaths. "It is something I can do, except that I do not know how to make it work without fire. He would never let me learn that." "It is magic?" "No more magic than making bread. It is just ordinary things put together differently. He would not let me learn the remainder of the secret. If it were truly magic, he would not have bothered to keep the secret from me, for I would not be able to do it anyway. But he feared my learning all his tricks and becoming as powerful as he was." "But I do not understand how he could live, lord," said Thomas, shaking his head. "There is another thing he learned," Melisande said. "I had forgotten it. I read it in one of the ancient books, but I did not believe it was so. There is a way to make the heart beat so slowly it seems to stop. He must have learned it." "And his antidote might have affected the poison, so that it did not kill him. We can but speculate on that. But he is alive, and filled with rage." "I'm going after him," said Gerard, and he started toward the hole in the wall. "Nay!" cried Melisande. "You do not know the caverns. You could send a hundred men into them, and he would pick them off, one by one." "If he has any sense, he is long gone," said Chrétien. "I do not see that he is any great threat to us, for Anwealda and Cyneric are both dead. He cannot raise an army now." "What if they are also not dead?" she asked. "They are dead, love. That I know," Alain responded. "But I want to know more. He had a small chamber, almost like a room carved into the stone, and an assortment of substances in jars. Lady, tell us what you know of it." She gulped, and he realized she was afraid to speak. What he had seen looked very much like witchcraft, and the more she said, the more she, also, looked like a witch. "Do not fear, love. I know you are no witch." She gave a tentative nod and worried at her lower lip. "Fyren dabbled in alchemy. I have been there but a few times. He did not want me to know what he did there, like the powder that makes the loud noise. I call it lightning powder. There were many things like it people do not know, yet the ancients must have known. Fyren wanted to learn them, and use them to gain power. He planned to rule all of the Isle, someday." Now she looked at him as if expecting a blow, knowing what she said would remind him of the rest of what Fyren had said. Aye, he remembered. He remembered his rage, as well. "Do not think I blame you for Fyren's evil," he said. "But you heard." "Aye. He used you in the most evil way." "You cannot want me, now. I am also to blame." "To blame. Is that why Fyren forced you into the pits?" Her head jerked as she nodded. "Then, how can you blame yourself?" "You do not understand. It is because I allowed it."

CHAPTER 22

"Allowed it?" He knew better. "You hate him too much. Chrétien, fetch Father Hardouin." "Do not give me to them. You said you would not." "And I do not, love. But you must know what sin is yours, and what is not. This is not your doing." "He is in the hall," Chrétien said, and sped away. The other two men stood as still as stone statues. "Thomas, I do not think she wants to share this matter," he said, and Thomas and Gerard turned to leave. "Nay, I am tired of secrets. I want no more of them. They also deserve to know, for they have defended me so blindly." "Not blindly, lady," said Gerard. The tenderness in his eyes made Alain's heart ache. "We have always known you to be worthy." "They will burn me," she said, in a sad, fatalistic tone. "Nay, lady," said Thomas. "Forgive me, but I also knew of this." Alain stared, stunned. "You knew and did naught about it?" Father Hardouin rushed into the chamber, Chrétien at his heels. "I did too much," Thomas answered. "I told the Lady Edyt, and she was murdered for her knowledge." Father Hardouin, his brow furrowed heavily, stood waiting, trying to make out from what he heard how he was needed. Alain gave Father Hardouin a summary of Melisande's confession. "She believes she is at fault," Alain told the priest. The priest came closer, and lifted Melisande's chin in his hand. "How is it that you are at fault, lady?" "He said I enticed him. I tried not to, but I did not know what I was doing wrong." "Lady Melisande," said the priest, "I cannot disagree that you are a beautiful woman. But such comes from God, not yourself. You must not be vain of your beauty, for it is God's doing. Neither must you accept guilt for it." "But I was willing." "Willing? Yet you were tormented with darkness, and imprisoned? That cannot be called willing." "Nay, that was not it, though he did use that, too." "What else, then?" "If I was not willing, he stole girls from the village, or other places, I do not know where, for I did not know many of them." "What did he do with them?" "He tortured them, and used them, then killed them and threw them into the pits." "So that was why they were never found," said Thomas. "And if you were willing, he would not do this?" "Aye. And some died for my selfishness." "There were many who disappeared," Thomas explained. "Sometimes a wild animal would be found dead, and have upon it some cloth or thing that belonged to a missing girl. So some people believed Fyren could change people into animals." Father Hardouin shuddered and shook his head. "Cannot you see, lady, the threat he used? If he had not been willing to kill those girls, he would not have had your cooperation. That is coercion of the worst kind. God looks upon your sacrifice as holy, not evil."

"He said I was consigned to Hell, anyway, for we are Satan's kin. And I committed murder, too." "It is not murder if he is not dead. But did not Father Leanian put a curse on Fyren?" "Aye." "Did Father Leanian know of all this?" "Nay." "Aye, he did," Thomas answered. Melisande's mouth dropped open as she stared at Thomas. "Lady Edyt told him, and bade him write to Rufus and beg help. Once, long ago, Rufus offered her a favor if ever she should need it. Though the king was but a young boy then, she hoped he would remember. I did not believe he would, for all have heard of Rufus' rapacity. But when I saw you, lord, I knew Rufus had answered her pleas." Alain nodded as the puzzle began to come clear. "He had a letter that he burned, allowing none to see. He sent me, lady, under a very mysterious instruction. Fyren was to be killed, for unnamed evil, and I was to marry you and accept you as I found you, no questions asked. I agreed readily, though I was more inclined at the time to imagine you with two heads than this." "Mayhap two heads would have been better." She hung her head miserably. She had thought him serious. But he smiled at her sad reflection. "I find you without fault, lady. Save, you have no humor, and that can be changed." "Well, lady," said the priest, "you may not even confess to the sin of attempted murder. As Father Leanian called for Fyren's death, you but sought to carry out God's will." "Father Hardouin, I poisoned Fyren out of my own need for vengeance, and gave over all that was his to the Normans." "Aye." "But vengeance is God's, is it not?" The priest smiled. "I think God is getting His vengeance, child. He has made you His instrument." Father Hardouin watched her closely, seeming to believe he had not yet made his point. "I make my own pronouncement on this matter, then. Whether Fyren's evil is of Satan or of himself, he must not live, for in living, he destroys all that is good. It is our duty to fight God's causes, aye, even for a woman, if God calls her to it. And Rufus, though he is so despised by the Church, is yet a Christian man, and is right. Fyren must be destroyed, in the name of God." "I do not understand one thing," Gerard said to Melisande. "I wanted to kill Fyren, and you would not allow it." "I thought I should do it, since my soul was damned already. And I wanted to do it." "Child, you were not damned," said the priest. "Anyone may receive pardon for his sins. You are no different. Come, let us see to this matter now." Alain stood away with the other men as Melisande knelt before the priest, to receive absolution. "She believed you would kill her, lord," Gerard told him quietly. "I did not understand why until now. It surely was more than she could say. But I knew in my heart she was wrong." "You did." "Aye. Else, I would have long since killed you. Her mother made me vow to protect her, you see." "Ah. And just when did you reach that conclusion?"

Gerard's solemn face slowly stretched into a wicked grin. "It must have been when you came out of the bath house." Chrétien suddenly broke into a quiet chuckle that echoed about the chamber. "It was much like the morning after the wedding, I'll vow. Rufus did pick well for her." Alain muttered to himself as he frowned. But he felt a slight smile creep onto his face, for he had other things on his mind as he led Melisande from her chamber into his. "Mayhap this idea of private chambers is one thing of Fyren's that should survive," he said. He ignored the snickers behind him as he closed the door and let the latch fall. None of them needed to know what happened after the door closed. Not for them to know the fire that erupted within him the instant his lips touched hers, nor how he touched her, nor she touched him. Their love grew between them, something uncountably precious, something that was entirely theirs. Let the others speculate, or imitate, but never know. His wife was his, and his alone. *** "I must know something," she said. She lay upon the feather mattress facing him, stroking lazily at his hair. "Hm?" "Why did you come after me?" "I wanted to tell you I was wrong. And beg you to come back, if I must. I was afraid, love." "Afraid? You, a brave knight? Why should you be afraid?" "I was afraid of losing you. If you got away, I might never find you again. You have done so much for me, Melisande. I cannot understand why I could not see it." "But I lied to you." "Aye, many times. And I would have you break that habit. There must be naught but truth between us from now on." "Aye." She smiled. It was a very small smile, but it shed the brightest of lights upon them. He had always known that her smile, however she gave it, would destroy the last of any resistance he had to her. He had been right. *** He woke to a scattered assortment of scrapes, scratches, swishes. The bed beside him was empty. Did she dream again? There she was. Squatted down near the far wall, wearing only her linen chemise and poking with her fingernails at the stone wall. Fascinated, he watched quietly as her fingers traced along the mortar. An odd dream, if it was one. "Ha!" she said. Startling herself, she looked guiltily back at the bed and saw him where he sat, watching her. "What do you do, lady?" he asked. Her eyes were bright with sudden insight. "There has to be another way. I think I have found it." "Another way?" "Anwealda did not come either through the bolt hole or the hidden steps to my chamber." "How so?" "Gerard slept with his lady there. Though Anwealda may not have known that, he would have quickly realized his error if he tried it. If he got past Gerard, then he still would have to leave the panel open for escape. But it was not open."

"You have lost me, entirely." "Suppose he came only to assassinate you. What did he plan to do about me? At the least, he would have to silence my screams. Even if he meant to kill me, he could not have killed both of us at the same time. He could count on one of us making enough noise to draw help. So he would have to make his exit very quickly. Hence, he would have left it open." "I see." "But it was not open." "True, it was not." "I do not think he came that way." "Neither was any other hole open." "Aye, and that is the second thing." "What?" "I do not think he came alone." Alain jumped up from the bed instantly and grabbed his tunic to pull over his head while he rushed to where she now stood. "Someone else that hurried away when the plot was spoiled, and closed the hidden door?" "Aye. This is it, I think." She ran her finger along a mortar line around staggered blocks. He could not imagine how such a thing might operate. "But I cannot find the lever." "Lever?" "The monks used levers or latches for this sort of thing." "Melisande, if someone else was in the chamber, could he not have gone back through the other chamber?" "Unlikely. Gerard must surely have been wakened by that time. And he had the brazier burning because of the baby. He would have seen someone." He watched, still intrigued. He jerked on his hose and fastened his dagger belt as she flicked out a loose chink of mortar. "Ha. Here it is." Alain saw nothing, yet the masonry door swung open, leaving a portal a little more than three feet high. He grabbed the tinder box he kept inside his pouch and struck a spark for a candle, which they held close to a hidden chamber. "That's where he put them." "Put what?" "The texts in Greek. He took them away from me when he learned I had been translating them. He can't, you see. He thought I would learn things he didn't know." The small chamber had a floor that was several feet below the one where he stood, with the ceiling no higher than the height of the portal. Melisande lowered herself into it, and he passed the candlestick to her, then ducked down and jumped through the hole. Melisande was already shuffling through the small stack of ancient manuscripts and newer books, apparently her confiscated translations. "If he could not translate them, why would he not wait until you were finished before taking them?" "He wanted to know what they said, but not if he risked my learning something that could defeat him. Or simply that I might know more than he. He could never tolerate that." "What is in them?"

"Many things. A very odd assortment, in fact. Some cooking recipes, but I do not understand many of the ingredients. There is something like 'fish sauce' that is ofttimes mentioned, but it does not say what it is. Mayhap I translated it wrong." "Other than cooking, then. Some great secret that could change the course of a war?" "Oh. Aye. Fyren's lightning powder, for one. It was in Latin. But he would not let me see it. There's Greek Fire, too, but--" Melisande's blue eyes widened in the meager candle light. "Aye, Greek Fire. I have puzzled over some sort of weapon, something to defeat Fyren, but- You see, the problem is that I cannot read all of the formula. But Fyren desperately craves the secret. If only I could figure out the last bit." "Melisande, Greek Fire is not such a huge secret." Her eyes took on a bright and wicked look that set him back. "The real one is. It has been lost for a long time." "What is different about it?" "It is said to be unquenchable. And it produces a fire beyond all imagination. Curious, is it not, that Fyren should so desire it, when he is so afraid of fire?" "Even more curious that he should be afraid of fire." "Aye, it is. He was burned badly on the legs as a child, and he has feared it ever since. He would not allow rushes or candles in the private chambers and will not light a torch or a candle, even out of desperation." "So Fyren has a weakness." She sighed. "But I get ahead of myself, lord. The formula is useless until I can divine the last ingredient. And I came to look for the hidden entrance, not a weapon." "Still, take the book out with us. Mayhap you will find something when you look again." "Mayhap. It was in a sort of code, and with the translation from the Greek to Latin, as well, I cannot guess it." "What does it seem to be?" "Antithesis. It is a way of saying, 'the opposite'." "Opposite of what?" "That, lord, is the problem. I cannot tell. Or it may simply be a word that has another meaning I do not know." He had not her patience for such obscure things. In fact, this morning, he had no patience for any but one thing, but Melisande was already absorbed in her quest. She passed the books through the portal, talking almost to herself as she did. "All the other ingredients are perfectly common," she said. "Saltpeter, charcoal, sulfur, tar, that sort of thing. Mayhap this 'antithesis' is the name of something that cannot be found around here. It derives from the Byzantines, you know." "Actually, I did not," he replied, as he handed another stack of books to her. "And as you say, those who did not know the secret invented their own versions. Rather effective ones, too. But the real Greek Fire could spread across water to set enemy ships afire, and could be shot through pipes, so that it did not threaten its users. If we could just find its trick, we might find a way to use it against Fyren. But how?" Alain boosted her up through the hole and scrambled up behind her. "I do not understand why Fyren would want such a fearsome weapon if he is so afraid of fire." "He always delegates such things to his subordinates. I am sure that is what he would do. But think what power one would have with such a thing. Think also, how much more useful it could be for evil purposes than for good."

"Aye. It would create enormous destruction. But I cannot see how it might be used otherwise." "And that is why I meant never to resurrect it. Still, if we might defeat Fyren, then mayhap, we must." He laughed. "We. I know naught of any of this. I cannot think what help I shall be, beyond the fetching and carrying." She looked at him with her big, round, summer-blue eyes in deadly seriousness. "I shall need you to listen to me. You might be able to point out errors I do not notice." His patience for all this wore thin, for his desire for her was overwhelming it. He stepped toward her and reached out for her, to draw her snugly to his body. "Melisande, love," he said, "Say my name. I would hear you say it." For that, she smiled. A smile like sunshine, for its warmth. She should have had a life of smiling. "Alain. My love," she said, and her voice became silky with her desire. His own ignited. "But not till you close that," he said, in answer to his own silent question. "That hole stinks of Fyren." It became a very urgent matter to get them both back to the bed from whence they had come. But he only just had his arms about her again, when a scuffling sound beyond the door interrupted them. The door banged twice, then Chrétien burst through with no more than a fleeting glance at the lovers wrapped in each other's arms. "Rufus comes!" he nearly shouted. "So early?" "Aye. He forced the march through the night when he learned of Fyren. Already he reaches the bridge." "A pity kings cannot be taught good manners," Alain grumbled, and he hastily donned the remainder of his clothing before dashing down the stairs from the balcony. Melisande soon followed him, still pulling her kirtle over her head as she ran, scurrying through the hall and out to the kitchen to see that breakfast awaited the king and his minions. Alain would rather have had her leave such things to the servants, but she had become too used to her duties. She felt more at ease if she had a task to perform. Today she would meet the King of England, who had meddled in her life. He wondered what Rufus would think of how his little scheme had turned out. And today, he would at last learn from Rufus how much of it had been the king's doing. Just before Rufus rode through the gate, he called Melisande to stand beside him, and seeing her apprehension, took her hand in his. "Rufus is not as gruff as he seems, love. Do not fear." Her bright blue eyes regarded him with something akin to suspicion as she stood silently beside him. Rufus rode at the head of his army, trailed by his knights and foot soldiers, and after them, his household and a multitude of supply wagons with hideously squealing axles. Alain felt his eyebrows raise at the size of the spectacle. Mayhap Rufus meant to take Scotland, after all. Alain himself took Rufus's rust-colored charger by its bridle, and Rufus sprang down from his saddle. His agility was always a surprise for such a corpulent man. Rufus was also a man of great energy, and was easily brought to enthusiasm when it came to a challenge or new idea. Alain could see in the king's eyes a wild excitement usually found only in the fervor of battle. So Rufus couldn't wait to see the results of his scheming.

"By Christ's Sweet Blood, it is good to see you, de Crency." said Rufus as he bounded up and clapped Alain on the back. Then the king's pale blue eyes grew wide beneath highly raised brows as he stared in blatant fascination at Melisande. "My wife, Sire, Lady Melisande." "By God, de Crency. I have made a terrible mistake!" "Sire?" "I gave such a beauty to you, when I should have kept her for myself?" He took Melisande's hand and raised it to his lips. "Lady Melisande, we must contrive to rid you of this husband. You would surely prefer marriage to a king, would you not?" Melisande's face was struck with horror as she instinctively jerked back her hand to her breast. Rufus cocked his blond head, puzzled. Time to intervene. "Ah, Sire, I am afraid the lady does not always understand such humor." "Humor?" she squeaked weakly. Rufus's bushy blond brows pulled into a heavy frown as he considered her again. Then he brightened and reared back into a great roar of laughter that further darkened his beefy red face. Melisande turned deathly pale. "Your pardon, lady," Rufus said, still chuckling, as he finally contained himself. "I've been too long in the company of men." "Oh, nay," she insisted. "It was my misunderstanding. Of course you did not mean--" "Oh, and there you are wrong, lady," said the king, and his eyes gleamed with his own brand of wicked mischief. "I do certainly mean you are that beautiful. I do wish I had not been so foolish to send you this poor knight, when I might have made you my own queen. But what's done is not to be undone. Alas, even I must agree with the Church on the business of marriage, and you are stuck with him." Melisande gave the king a feeble smile, as if she almost understood. "Aye. I shall have to live with it." Rufus roared his great belly laugh again, and squeezed her hand between both of his. "I vow, you are a jewel, lady. I do see much of your lady mother in you." A strange sadness crept over his face. "She is gone now, is she not?" "Aye. These past three months." "You have my greatest condolences, Lady Melisande. Know you, my dear, that I have never forgotten her, though I was but a moonstruck boy when I met her. Ah, de Crency, now there was a woman. If only I had been ten years older, she would have become England's queen, and all England the better for it." Alain directed the king toward the hall, mentally hoping the kitchen staff had a feast set, even this quickly. "Truly, Sire? I had no inkling you had ever considered a queen." "But if you had known her, de Crency, you would know that there has been none to compare with her, all these years. Aye, my dear, you do resemble her greatly, save your eyes. Hers were somewhat green, I recall. And your hair is not as pale, nor does it curl in tiny rings about your face quite as much as did hers. Yet your hair is nonetheless as lovely. But Alain, do not grow jealous. I shall not steal your lovely bride from you." Then Rufus's jovial face suddenly sagged to deadly seriousness. "Now, what is this business about Fyren?"

CHAPTER 23 As he escorted the king up the steps to the dais, Alain explained the sudden reappearance of the man who called himself the Spawn of Satan. He gave over his great chair to the king, and seated his wife between himself and Rufus. Rufus, for all that he appeared intent on the great piles of food on his trencher, missed not a word. "What think you, then, lady?" asked Rufus. "You do know Fyren better than any here." "I know not, Sire," she answered tentatively, almost as if she expected a new wave of Rufus' roaring laugh to roll over her. "I did not believe him before, but always there was some doubt. Even now, for all that he appears to have risen from his grave, there is something that does not fit." "How so?" "I cannot say, Sire, something I know without knowing." "Aye," said Alain, "he is more charlatan than sorcerer, I vow. Yet, we must not deny the danger he poses." "I told you thus, before I sent you here, Alain. The lady's explanation of the ancient manuscripts tells us much. It is commonly known that the ancients had knowledge that has been lost. Many such Greek and Latin texts perished at the hands of our Norse ancestors, for whom it had no meaning. Think on it, Alain, if we had the secrets that made the Romans great." "Among these here is Greek Fire, so says my lady." "Greek Fire. Aye. It is said, though many things are named thus, they have not the awesome power of the genuine Greek Fire." "They do not," Melisande agreed. "Yet, I cannot make out the complete formula. So I cannot think how it can be useful." "The king reads Greek, do you not, Sire?" Rufus gave a studied frown. "I know somewhat of it, but I am no scholar, and I can find none to teach me more." "Mayhap, Sire, you might know the meaning of the missing word," Melisande said. Rufus nodded gravely. "Tell me, lady." "I know not how to say them, but--" Melisande drew out the odd Greek characters on the tablecloth with her finger, hoping Rufus could understand her invisible tracings. His lips silently mouthed the strange symbols. Rufus' frown became more studied. "It cannot be an ingredient, surely." "But what is it?" "Antithesis. It refers to the opposite of something. If you have an idea, for example, then I present its opposite." Melisande's hopeful face sank. "That was also her interpretation, Sire. She hoped you knew a different meaning." Rufus sighed. "Ah, that is the difficulty with the languages of the ancients. The scribe who copies it might mistake the word, or even one letter of it, and give it a different meaning. Mayhap, lady, if you work with the ingredients you know, an idea will come to you." "Aye, that was my thinking, Sire," she said, and her solemn eyes nevertheless danced and sparkled.

Alain saw it in both of them, his wife and his king, as their eyes met in a common understanding. She loved the quest, the challenge of something new or impossible, and none could understand that better than Rufus. Rufus gave no objection when she asked his leave to begin her probing in the kitchen. But Alain knew Rufus well, and knew he had an accumulation of questions beneath the facade of pleasantry. Rufus always schemed, and he needed facts to do it. "Come show me your castle, de Crency," said Rufus. Alain took him up the narrow stone stairs that led onto the allure, where they surveyed the surrounding pasture, village, and greening fields of oats and barley, all the way to the distant fells. Turning, they looked back on the castle itself as it rambled in apparent aimlessness up the hillside. "I see what you mean, Alain. This place could easily be stormed from above. Although the climb would be disheartening." "And you and I know many a foot soldier and knight willing to do it. It takes but a few men breaching the wall to make it open to all," Alain replied. "Surely Fyren knew that." "But he thought of himself as the aggressor. Mayhap he never expected he could be attacked. There were things about the old monastery that stood here before he came that I think he valued more. Melisande says he has an intense fear of fire from a childhood accident. Stone buildings already complete must have had enormous appeal to him. Even more, the caverns below, where he could conduct his crimes in secret. The caverns are much feared by the local folk. We think he did not share the secret of the hidden passages with any but his daughter or his closest minions. And she believes there are more places which she does not know. The bolt hole was known of course, but by few." The king nodded. "So he added the curtain wall and that new tower to the already existing buildings. Aye, I see it, Alain. If he had built a new place with passages into the caverns, too many people would know of them. But to take over one where they already existed-- a different matter. He could preserve his secret. Show me this bolt hole." Alain took the king down the narrow stone steps and across the upper bailey. Rufus ignored those who bowed before him, for his attention was riveted elsewhere. Alain led the king through the temporary portal in the ground floor of the tower, past hoards of grain and other staples to the hole. Rufus climbed over the mass of debris and blocks of stone to peer inside. "I agree. Far too vulnerable. I cannot imagine giving the enemy access directly into the tower. Unless, as you say, such access is not known. But Fyren knows, and he is your enemy. So block it." Rufus turned away from the bolt hole. He stopped abruptly, and his nose wrinkled up, twisted about on his face. As he brought a cloth up to his nostrils, Rufus's head reared back, then launched forward in an enormous sneeze, followed by another, then another. "I must be out of here," the king said, snatching words between sneezes. Alain hurried him back the way they came, furtively scanning for the red tabby. He did not see him. Any number of things might set Rufus to sneezing. Dusty, moldy places seemed ofttimes the worst. But the cat- Back in the bright sunshine, Rufus blew his nose and sniffed. "Now, let us go see what your lovely wife conjures up." Alain stiffened minutely at the allusion to witchcraft, but knew Rufus meant no ill by it. Rufus, who held little stock in the mysteries of the Church, was as skeptical of sorcery. Alain pointed to the kitchen.

"Ah, my Lady Melisande," said Rufus. Affection dripped from his voice in a way Alain had never heard. It was not the sort to provoke a man's jealousy, for Melisande had captured Rufus's affection long before he had ever seen her, coming from that left over from his boyhood enchantment of her mother. Melisande looked up from the crockery bowl she held, and gave Rufus that crooked little half smile she had only recently acquired. When she caught her husband's eye, she became suddenly radiant, her broad smile lit by the brilliance in her eyes. He loved her all over again. Silently, anew, and more deeply. "Welcome, Sire," she replied. "What have you here, lady?" Melisande displayed her array of cups and bowls, and the substances they contained. "I have all I need, save that one. And others that I thought might lend themselves to the formula. Amber, for example. I had the mason pound it to powder." "Why?" "As a powder, it mixes well with other things. But once lit, it should melt and cling to whatever it touches." "A diabolical touch, lady. You make a formidable enemy." She sighed. "But the missing ingredient still escapes me." "But if the word is antithesis, might it not be something that does not fit?" "Aye." Melisande nodded with a thoughtful frown. "But that could take us anywhere, and we have little time. It seemed more profitable to start with the most likely." Once again, Rufus's red nose began to flare and sniffle. He held his cloth to it until the urge to sneeze subsided. Alain never felt pity for Rufus, save when his nose took one of its spells. Nothing else had ever incapacitated the man, but when he began to sneeze, the spells sometimes went on and on for hours, not leaving even moments undisturbed for speech. To be such a warrior as Rufus, and be disabled by a sneeze. Nothing frustrated Rufus more. Calmed at last, Rufus resumed his inspection of Melisande's containers. "This is what the text says? Might I see it, lady?" With a grateful nod, Melisande handed the king the bound parchment pages, pointing out where she had found the formula. The king scanned over the pages, frowning. "But that is not what the text says, lady. It merely speaks of a formula lost forever." "Aye. But look within each letter. And note those which have an extra dot within them. A tiny blot that should not be there. Take each in the order it appears. That is where the formula lies." Rufus' perusal intensified. His lips moved silently. "I thought at first the letters had changed in some way I did not understand. But then I saw the pattern was short-lived, and I looked more closely." Rufus nodded as he read, absorbing both at the same time. "I see it. Amazing." He mumbled aloud, encapsulating the letters into odd-sounding words, excitement building on his face. Then it sagged, and he let loose a feeble sigh. "Antithesis. I too find naught else, lady. I am sorry. I had hoped to help. But it is a puzzle within a puzzle." Again the king's red nose sniffed, and suddenly let loose a great outburst of a sneeze. Before he could summon relief, the next one hit. Rufus looked down at his legs where the huge red

tabby cat braided itself around them. Amidst another round of sneezes, he stepped back, but the cat followed, purring loudly. Melisande's round blue eyes filled with horror, and she leapt at the tabby. "Scat, Rufus! Shoo! Begone!" The cat looked up at her as if she entirely misunderstood its mission, and continued rubbing at the king's legs. "Rufus?" The king sneezed again, his whole body arcing back then forward. Melisande's hand flew to her mouth. "Well, I-- well, it is a cat, Sire--" She waved hands at the offending beast, which only stood its ground and purred more loudly. Rufus's great sneezes grew louder, too, as he staggered with each blow. Melisande sprang after the cat, which scooted neatly out of her reach, then returned to its odd task of massaging the king's legs. "Ungrateful wretch," she grumbled, and lunged after it again. The animal yowled as she caught the tail. It pulled itself free and bolted out of the kitchen. "Rufus." The king glowered over the damp cloth he held to his nose as he blew. Melisande looked like she expected the king's great sword to decapitate her. "I was very young, Sire, and I thought it a grand name for a cat. My mother had told me all manner of tales, and-- oh dear." Alain commandeered an unused kitchen rag to replace the king's soaked cloth. "King Rufus, actually," Alain said casually, ignoring Melisande's horrified eyes. "King Rufus?" "I was very young, Sire. I had no idea-- he is very red, you see-" "He thinks he owns the place," Alain added. "Watch him strut, Sire. Arrogant beast, isn't he?" "God's Blood, you're right. I do not strut that way, do I, de Crency?" "Nay, Sire, none but a cat can strut that way." Rufus's low chuckle rumbled, and he brought the rag once more to his nose to blow it. "Strange creatures, cats," said Rufus. "Always take a fascination for the person least likely to welcome them. Damned if I don't collect them like a dead ox does flies." Rufus took his leave of the lady, giving her an affectionate pat to her shoulder, and the men returned to the bailey. "Ah, a rare beauty, Alain," Rufus said. "Only think, if I had been but a few years older, I might have been her father." "She would have been somewhat different then, I'd think." "Nonsense. She would have taken entirely after her mother, in any case. Oh, the eyes, mayhap. Such a stunning blue. But she is a bit, ah, how shall I say it?" "No sense of humor," he finished for the king, and laughed. "It will change with time, I vow. These people have had little enough reason to laugh, and she, the least of them. I am glad enough that she has begun to smile." "Not even smiles before, then?" "Not a one." "Well, I am glad I sent you, then, and not another." Rufus regarded him warily. "I suppose you have learned the truth?" "But every time I think I have found the bottom of this sinkhole, another opens up. I cannot comprehend how a man could do such a thing to his daughter." "A man who has given his soul to Satan can do anything evil." "You knew all of it, then, Sire?"

The king strode on, silent for awhile. "Aye. The Lady Edyt sent a monk to me with a letter, calling upon the favor I had promised her many years ago. She told of Fyren's evil deeds, and begged for her daughter's rescue." "But could you not have told me?" Rufus released a sigh. "She begged me tell no one, to save her daughter the humiliation. Yet, a husband surely must discover the truth. I thought, too, that if I told you first, before you had opportunity to meet the lady, the truth might poison you to her finer qualities. I confess, though, I have had great fears of the rightness of my decision." "And I cannot say now what I would have done then, for I can no longer imagine being without her." Rufus smiled broadly. "That is what I hoped to hear, my friend. Mayhap I read too much into the fact that she was Edyt's daughter, but I did hope she was much like her lady mother. If Edyt could not be happy, I did wish it for her child." They walked in silence, and Rufus resumed his keen-eyed inspection of the strange fortress and its faults. "I think you are right to want to build elsewhere, Alain. When this conflict is done, of course. You have an abundance of cut stone already to help you. Now, this puzzle of Fyren. How much does he menace us?" "To my knowing, he has only Dougal on his side, and mayhap a large number of Anwealda's knights." "And Malcolm." "Aye. But we have heard nothing of Malcolm's intentions." "I came up from Durham, that I might hear of his movements, but I learned naught. He moves on Carlisle, I'll wager. And if Fyren could take this castle, he could pinch us between them." "Fyren has lost much with Cyneric and Anwealda gone, but he does not linger here merely to watch." "Aye. Your discovery of his presence was accidental. But it means he poses a greater threat than we imagined. Fear of him is widespread and does us great harm." "They think him risen from the dead, and therefore with all the power of Satan." "And you, my friend? What think you?" "I know he had many powerful secrets. To the minds of ignorant men, this is Satan's power. But I say he never died." Rufus stroked at his chin with his fist, and his bushy blonde brows knitted into furrows. "None is known to have risen from the dead, save by God's power. Lazarus, Christ, a few saints. If any had risen by the power of Satan before, we would have heard, for mankind is even quicker to pass on frightful news than good. So I say Satan has not the power, and you are right. The coffin is full of rocks." "But such fear can paralyze an army. Many would not dare fight against Satan, for fear that he would capture their souls." Rufus now pressed both hands together, prayer-like, and took them to his lips. The king's eyes took on a deadly gleam and Alain suddenly knew what he was about to say. The words came from both of them at once. "Let's dig it up."

CHAPTER 24 "Only you could be so blasphemous to think of such a thing, Sire. But then, Fyren's grave has no blessing upon it. Aye. Let's do it." Alain almost laughed and ran after the king as he scurried down the stone steps. "You've seen the look on these men, Alain. Think you they believe Fyren is a mere charlatan? We must defeat him, yet our soldiers fear him more than death. We'll show him for the hoax he is. You have to be right. Let's get about it." Suddenly energized again, Rufus called to his soldiers as he ran through the lower bailey. They had hoped for a moment's rest after the night's march, but Rufus led his men down the hill after his host, past the church and village, and on to the pasture where the earl had been buried. Their faces paled as Rufus explained their task, and Alain surmised they had already heard the story of Fyren's sudden reappearance. Alain sent for Father Hardouin to help dispel their fears. Rufus was right, the rumors had to be laid to rest. But if they found what they sought, would the soldiers interpret it right, or would it seem like more of the Devil's work? Rufus was a hard taskmaster, but his own eagerness overwhelmed him. When the soldiers did not dig fast enough, he grabbed the shovel and dug, himself. Out of compassion, Alain called upon his villeins to step in as the soldiers tired. Rufus's energy seemed to grow instead of flag. "We shall find rocks," Rufus announced with confidence, now standing aside as the villeins and soldiers dug. "How so, Sire?" one dared to ask, as he paused to wipe away his sweat. "It is known that Fyren lives, yet those who carried the coffin attest to its weight. I say he never died, but weighted the coffin to fool those who carried it." "Could it not be the Devil's work, to put stones in the dead earl's place, once he rose?" asked a nearby knight. "Why? Since he was already presumed buried, none would care to know the casket's weight. I tell you, the coffin contains rocks, and Fyren left his death chamber in the night, alive, before the coffin was buried." "Yet there are those who saw him dead." "Aye. And many of us have seen those thought dead arise from the battlefield, have we not?" Rufus's blue eyes danced with excitement. "And why, if he had such power-- why hide it?" "I agree, Sire," said Father Hardouin. "Satan and his minions are deceit incarnate. They pretend to powers they do not have. Though Satan is much to be feared, he cannot overcome God and the Savior." Several men nodded silently, quietly tucking away their skepticism, and resumed their grim task. A shovel clanked against something hard. With a few more scoops they uncovered the casket's top. With renewed energy, the soldiers dug away to bare the coffin's sides. "Get down there and open it," Rufus said. The soldier stared at the coffin as if he faced Satan himself. "I will do it," Alain said, and grabbed the prybar as he jumped down into the grave beside the casket. With several powerful strokes, he forced the top and bent it back. He smiled with grim satisfaction. Rufus smiled broadly. "Boards," Alain said. "Oak planks wrapped in cloths, to keep them from shifting or making noise." "Aye," said Rufus. "Not even the Devil himself would go to such trouble, save to deceive."

At last exhaustion claimed Rufus, and he trudged wearily back up the hill, yet his elation triumphed. "So Fyren is but a man after all, Alain. A man, we can defeat." Alain smiled. "Even a Devil's son, we could defeat, Sire, for God has declared for us. Father Hardouin has called for Fyren's death, and he shall have it. I shall slay him, myself." "And once free of him, I march on Carlisle." Alain dismissed Rufus's arguments that he should not take the chamber of newlyweds. "Newly wedded couples care not a whit for their environs, Sire. A stable of straw is no less fair." "Ha. I vow you'd tumble her there, just as quickly." "I intend to try it, Sire." Rufus's beefy hand slapped Alain's shoulder. But he objected no more and offered his campaign tent in exchange as he closed the chamber door. For though he was a tough and hardened campaigner like his father, Rufus also had a fondness for the softness of a feather bed. With a broad smile that came from thinking of the coming night, Alain left the king and hastened down the stairs, through the hall to the bailey. As he strode toward the kitchen where Melisande labored with her chemicals, the folk of the bailey watched him with frightful eyes, and skirted the kitchen with spacious boundaries. He suspected they had liked his odd wife better when they had thought her merely possessed by demons. But he had seen her magic, and understood it to be exactly what she called it, mere knowledge that ordinary men lacked. With a smile born of anticipation, thinking how she would look bending over her task, he stepped inside the doorless entry. A startled shout met him, and fire flashed with a roar. Instinctively, he stepped back as the red tabby cat dashed, screeching, past him. Alain rushed to her, fearing she might have been burned, but instead found her staring at the meager blaze that remained. "I do not have it yet," she said, and the words came out as a sigh. "I have tried several things. This started out well enough, but- As you see, it did not last." "It was an impressive start. Mayhap, you should leave out the amber." "It is better with it. Nay, it seems to make no difference. And its purpose is to bind the fire where it lands. I cannot think, Alain, what is missing. Mayhap 'antithesis' is a puzzle of some sort, a symbol, or even a pun?" How could he help her? He had no knowledge whatsoever of Greek. "What think you, then? What sort of symbol?" She looked weary, no longer infused with that burning ambition he had seen before. "I know not. But I must find it. The formula is worthless without it." Alain wrapped his arms around her in a comforting embrace and nuzzled at her earlobe. As her arms also encircled him, he gave her a promising kiss. "Then come for a walk with me, love, and take your mind from this for a while. Tonight, we will take our love to the king's tent, as I have given him our chamber. So let us go look at it." "Mayhap in a little while," she replied. "I have another idea to try." He released her, his sigh a copy of hers. But he understood her need, and stood aside to watch instead. She talked aloud as she worked, not truly speaking to him or to herself, as if the words confirmed process, gave meaning to the search. "I have tried rearranging the order of things, but it makes no difference I can see. Mayhap if I have the time to let the slurry for the lightning powder dry, it could be what we desire. It could be antithesis to any number of things. Serenity, mayhap?"

"What has serenity to do with Greek Fire?" "I see naught. It was not such a good idea, was it?" "No matter. It will come." She bent again to her task, taking the small jar of powder in one hand and the second of thick liquid in the other. "De Crency?" Alain turned to the entry, where a strange knight stood. "Aye?" "I cannot find the king, de Crency." "You need not worry. He has gone to the lord's chamber to rest. You did march through the night." "Aye. But did not Rufus take any of his knights with him?" "I did not think he had need of them." "But the castle is not secure. It is said the magician gathers his minions beneath our very feet. I do not understand why you sent the gift and encouraged the king to come, if it is so unsafe." "I have not known Rufus to cower from- what gift?" "The purple cloak, lord, which you sent to--" Alain spun around, caught Melisande's horrified stare. "Did you not destroy it?" "I thought you took it back. You did not?" "Nay." "Fyren!" they both said at once. "He must have poisoned you to get it." "And it is Rufus he is after, now!" she cried. "He has used the cloak to lure him here. Hurry! We must warn him!" With her jars still in her hands, she ran after Alain through the bailey, the hall, and up the stairs. Alain pounded on the oak chamber door. Pounded again, shouting at the king to answer. Shouts, great howls of rage rang out from the chamber. Alain juggled the latch, but it would not lift from its slot. "A prybar. I need a prybar." "Go through the other chamber." Melisande already ran to that room, found the door open, and ran in, Alain behind her. He fought the latch on the door between chambers until it snapped free. He yanked it open. On the floor before them lay one of Rufus's household knights, moaning his last breath. Alain's eyes shifted instantly to the open hatch of the small secret chamber, as Rufus's outraged cries bellowed forth from below. "They've taken Rufus. Run, Melisande. Get the guards." "Not I." She turned to the astonished knight behind her. "You go." She did not wait, but slid down into the hole behind Alain. "Melisande, go back." "This is my fight!" "It is not! Go back!" She ignored him. He could not stop to force her back. It would take an army to hold her back. His prayer for her safety was too quick for words, may God forgive him. "Look. I knew there was another passage." Narrow steps, lit by fire from below, spiraled around and down. His mind conjured up an image of Rufus struggling, his legs and arms flailing, bracing against a passage so narrow that he

wondered how they had managed to force Rufus through it. It would take the very Devil to do that to Rufus. Aye, that was the problem, was it not? Rufus's muffled shouts still rang with wild curses that bounced off the rough-hewn rock. Alain scrambled down the stone steps with Melisande behind him, to the bottom. And Fyren. A different chamber, but Alain could see beyond it into the one where Melisande had discovered Fyren alive. And there stood Dougal with his knights. "By God's breath, you'll pay!" Rufus shouted, while the renegade knights sought to muffle him and cursed against Rufus's unexpected strength. "Let him go!" Melisande's voice resounded like the crack of lightning through the small, rock-walled chamber. Fyren looked up, and his eyes, startlingly blue like hers, gleamed with evil glee. "Ah, you have come back to me, my dear daughter. What is it I have that you want? This ugly, round dumpling that calls itself king?" "Let him go." Fyren released a deep, guttural chuckle. "And for what? You have betrayed me, girl." "Betrayed you? I always told you I would kill you." "And you failed. Now it is time for my revenge. I shall kill this fat obscenity, and that coward of a husband who stands behind you. You will see then where you belong." "You will not. For I have something you want more." Fyren's mouth worked at one corner in an ugly sneer. "Have you, girl? I doubt that. You know naught more than I." "But I do, Fyren. It is I who have translated the Greek manuscripts you so carelessly left in that little room. I know what you want. And I have it." "What?" "Greek Fire." Fyren let back his head, and his laughter convulsed through him. "It is no secret." "The real one is. You know it as well as I." "And it is lost. You also know that." "I have found it, encoded into the very passage that proclaims it lost forever. You may have it, Fyren, for a price." "You lie." Melisande smiled, a thin line as malevolent as Fyren's. "Do you want it? Or shall I keep it and use it against you? You are not so fond of fire, are you?" "You lie, I say." "Mayhap I shall show you. For a price." "What do you want?" "You know the price. Let him go, Fyren. You do not need him. With Greek Fire, you can take all England." "If you thought so, you would not let me have it." "Would I not? Mayhap you are right. I want only to see you dead. And I will. Mayhap I have something even better. But you will never know. You are too cowardly to risk it." "Naught frightens me." "Except fire. Aye, that is it. You want it, and fear it. Ah, it is too bad. You will never know." "Do it, then." "Here? Nay, in there. But let the king go. Over there, by my husband." She pointed to Alain. "He stays."

"Then you learn naught." "You will show me. You want him too badly." "You want Greek Fire more. If I am wrong, I shall leave." "Dougal! Seize her!" Melisande fixed fierce eyes on Dougal. Her hand shot forth before the man, fingers spread wide. Dougal halted, mid-pace. "Nay, Dougal. This fight is mine." Dougal stepped back, sizing her up. For what seemed forever, their eyes locked in combat. Then with his own hands held out, he restrained his men. "Aye, lady. It is yours. He is worth naught if he cannot defeat a woman." "Then, Fyren, choose." Fyren's great blue eyes, fierce and malevolent, glared at Dougal, who did not flinch. He swept his gaze across the gathered knights. "Do it." With a sideways shake of his head, Dougal signaled the knights to release Rufus. Alain leaped forth and grabbed the king's arm to yank him from the fray, already knowing Rufus's intent. "Nay, Sire. Let her have it." "Alain, you cannot let--" "It is her fight, as she says. She knows what she does." "Alain!" Alain hissed at him, begging the king silently. Rufus's pale blue eyes filled with horror, but Alain would not release his grip. "Block the stairs," said Fyren. Melisande sneered at the feeble gesture as a knight sidled there. She looked about her with the regal carriage of a queen surveying her domain, and walked into the larger chamber beyond. Behind her followed Fyren, his eager greed only barely disguised. "Alain, I beg you, you must not--" "Aye. We go, too." "He will kill her, Alain!" "Believe in her, Sire." No danger of his own could have ever brought Rufus to trembling. Few men understood that as well as Alain. But the king's hands trembled for the lady with butter-yellow hair who dueled with the magician. His large Adam's apple bobbed as he swallowed repeatedly. And none knew fear as Alain did at this moment. He too was desperate to save her. He was a knight, a warrior. It was for him to fight, to protect his lady, as he had intended earlier to do. But if he did, if he stepped in and slew Fyren, she would never be free. Fyren, and a lifetime of fear, would imprison her to her grave. Nay, she was right. The fight must be hers. And he was so terrified, tears formed in his eyes. *** She turned her body and soul to stone. She would not show him fear. Never. Yet she could not see how she would turn this to their favor. She must. God was on her side. And she would bluff them until the inspiration came. What else could she do? Antithesis. What was it? "I need yet one thing, Fyren, and I know you have it." Melisande's eyes roamed over the large oak table that had been set back on its legs.

"What?" "I shall not tell you. I have promised only to show it. You will not have the formula until the king is safely back in the hall." "Get on with it, then." Her eyes took on the lean look of a predator closing in. One eyebrow cocked itself high, assessing the adversary, then slid confidently back into place. Before her, she spilled the powdered contents of one jar onto the floor. Judging it adequate, she took the second jar and let loose a quick burst of liquid onto the powder. She stepped back. Nothing happened. Fyren laughed. "Is this what--" The puddle whooshed to wild fire before them. Fyren leaped back with an involuntary yelp. "Yes, fire, Fyren. That is what Greek Fire is about." But as it had done before in the kitchen, the blaze quickly faded to little more than a flame in a brazier. "And this you call Greek Fire, girl? Do not tell me it is unquenchable." "Of course not, Fyren. It is but the beginning. As I have said, I need something more. I am sure it is here." Melisande turned her back to the sorcerer to again scan across the remnants of the pots and jars on the table. "Melisande, put this out!" shouted Fyren. "Put it out? I have but now begun." Again she turned away as if she had not noticed the way the flame slowly began to grow again. "Melisande, it spreads! Put it out!" "It is but a little fire, Fyren. Are you so afraid? Odd, don't you think, Dougal, for a man who will spend his eternity in Hell, to so fear a little blaze?" She assessed Dougal's confusion. "Ah, you did not know? Aye, there is much I think you do not know, Dougal, for you are a decent man. And you are new to this unholy alliance." Melisande stepped casually to the opposite side of the fire, leaving Fyren alone to face the flames. "He has told you only that he has the power to roll back the Norman wave into the sea, and make England Saxon again. But did you know, Dougal, that he used his daughter as a whore? That he stole young girls and murdered them, while raping them? He liked it that way, you see. If you take the time, you will find their bodies deep in the pits of this cavern. But do not believe his magic. Naught of it is any more than you see now, and I can show you how all of it is done." Fyren's face became red with rage, then paled as panic again overtook him. "Melisande! Put out this fire! It is spreading! It will kill us all!" "Put it out yourself, Fyren. But then, you will not, will you? You are too frightened." Her eyes flicked quickly to the pail of water Fyren always kept in the corner to reassure himself. Fire. Water. Antithesis. Water! That was it! But Fyren had seen her eyes, interpreted the sudden wild notion in his own way. He lunged for the bucket before she could reach it. "Now, I have you, girl. You thought you could get it before I did, didn't you?" With a swoop, Fyren plunged the water over the growing fire. Before her horrified eyes, the flames leapt up with a roar, splashing onto Fyren's robes. Little globules of fire, no bigger than a

thumb, suddenly burst into great tongues that clung and licked and danced, merged into a huge, screaming torch before her. She leapt back to save herself. Beyond the storm of fire, Alain and Rufus screamed to her, desperate to break through the impenetrable wall of searing heat. "Nay!" she screamed back. "Save the hall! The fire will carry up!" "I'll not leave you!" shouted Alain. "Nor I!" screamed Rufus. But they could not get past. "Go! Trust me! I know a way out!" "Alain, we cannot leave!" Alain's fists became fiercely tight balls. "Lady!" he screamed. "Trust me! Trust me, Alain! I can do it! Go!" She begged God. Please, just this once, let them give a woman their trust! Only the outline of Alain's body was visible past the warping heat between them. He sped away, forcing the king ahead of him. Thank you, God! She turned slowly, took a long, slow breath. Her gaze swept over the knights that stood, frozen in their fear, then alit on Dougal. She sank a cold, pitiless stare on them. "Now," she said. "Who wants to live?"

CHAPTER 25 Alain raced to the stone staircase, shoving Rufus ahead of him. "Go!" "Alain, she'll die!" But Rufus kept running. "Nay, she'll not. She knows the caverns. Go!" Alain crammed down the terror that rose like gorge. But he had to believe. He'd promised her. Norman knights poured downward, no longer held off by the single Saxon knight they had knocked aside. "Go back! All of you!" shouted Rufus. "Run for the hall! Get everyone out!" Jammed into the narrow space, the knights turned around, but could not move. They passed the word upward until those at the top understood they must get out of the way. Rufus kept shouting, his booming voice carrying as it did on a battlefield, as the upward spiral of stairs cleared ahead of them. Then he began chanting his prayers, calling on Jesus, Mary, God, and all the saints he knew. "God protect her, Holy Mother, protect her." "She carries God's blessing, Sire," Alain said, as much for his own reassurance as the king's. "Aye, but it never hurts to ask again." Rufus pushed through the portal at the top, and climbed into the lord's chamber, with Alain shoved at the king's rear. Once out, Rufus grabbed Alain's arm and yanked him through so quickly that Alain barely missed cracking his head on the stone above him. Saxon knights clambered through the hole behind him, willing to trade anything for the inferno below. Rufus flung orders like stones from a slingshot. "Out! All of you! The fire spreads upward! Empty every chamber and everyone out of the hall! Hurry! Do not let the people panic. Force them to retreat bravely, like soldiers. Go!" Chrétien grabbed the king's arm, entreating. "You must go ahead, Sire."

"If their king has no courage, they will see it." Rufus stubbornly placed himself at the end of the evacuation. Alain swept his gaze in all directions, searching for stragglers, while the knights and soldiers grabbed whatever valuables they saw. "The fire," whispered Rufus, so low only Alain could hear, "if it is what the lady believes it to be, might do anything. It could grow and lick upward through whatever passage it could find. Yet surely it cannot consume rock. Can it?" "If it is truly Greek Fire, who knows what it can do?" replied Alain. "Melisande did not. We must take no chance. If it reaches the chambers from the storage rooms below, it could next take the wooden floors of the chambers. The beams are thick, but they will resist only for a while. From there, it could spread upward to the chambers, and outward to the dais, into the hall." Alain appraised the small windows, each a pair of narrow openings, with double arches at the top, and divided vertically by a small stone column. Shutters narrowed them further. He could make it through if he kicked out the column and shutters, but he wasn't sure about Rufus. Rufus caught the direction of Alain's eyes. "Forget it, friend. I've grown too fat. We'll take the stairs in an orderly manner." "You should have gone first, Sire. All of England depends on you." "Or my successor," replied Rufus as casually as if they merely strolled along the allure. "Do not forget that, Alain. All kings have successors, even if it is no more than a younger brother." As they dashed down the stairs, Alain's eyes roamed about for signs of fire. So far, no more than an oppressive heat. Praise God. Please, God, keep her safe. "I did not know you had changed your heir, Sire," Alain said calmly, belying his fear. Rufus passed him a knowing gleam as he took the stairs two at a time. "It will be Henry, no matter what I say, for he will have the crown on his head even before Robert blinks. But it keeps Robert happy to think England will be his. Henry is clever. Robert cannot even manage to keep his friends from stealing his hose. The crown will be secure with Henry." Smoke. Smoke wriggled through the walls, collecting and billowing, rising. The paired doors, flung wide, and the narrow kitchen exit were the only ways out. A child whimpered. "Never fear," shouted Rufus. "There is time. I am your king, and I come last. Do you think I would risk myself thus?" A mother calmed the crying child as murmurs of reassurance spread. They would make it out safely. The hall was emptying rapidly, and flames did not yet lick through the walls. A woman cried out. "My baby! Someone stop her!" Lynet! The red tabby, King Rufus, yowled as it dashed past them and up the wooden staircase behind them. The little girl screeched and scurried up the stairs on hands and knees after it. "Sweet Jesus! Alain, they're going back into the fire!" Rufus spun around to run back to the stairs. "I'll get her, Sire. Just get the people out." Alain tugged at Rufus' arm, but the king ran on. "You get the babe, I'll get the cat." "The cat? Let the cat go." "We promised all out safely, and the babe will go easier with the cat. --Nay, I'll not risk the babe for it, do not fear, but we'll manage. Go, Alain." The agile king dashed up the stairs just as tongues of fire burst through the wall by the dais and lapped at the supports below them.

"Sweet Christ, it's hot!" Rufus yelled. The cat ran screaming to the balcony's end before the little girl reached it. She picked up the squirming animal by its belly, while it lashed out its legs at her. No claws, Alain guessed, for the girl was still holding him. Alain grabbed the girl as Rufus snatched the cat. The animal suddenly turned into a screeching mass of razor claws as Rufus grappled for his grip. Rufus tore off his cloak and swaddled it around the complaining beast. "I hate cats!" he screamed, mounding curses atop his words. Flames cut them off, consuming the stairs and the supporting frame of the balcony. Trapped. "The far chamber!" Alain screamed to Rufus. "The chambers are also ablaze." "Aye. Stay by the outer wall. Mayhap we can make the window. It's only a short drop to the ground." Mayhap he could persuade Rufus to leap over the rail and out through the hall. But that would mean giving up on the cat and child, something Rufus would never do. Rufus eyed the spreading fire below, then the still untouched far chamber. "Aye. Go." Alain balanced the tiny girl her on his hip as he ran. She coughed from the choking smoke. He spotted a garment hanging on a peg, jerked it free and threw it over the child's head. "I can't see!" cried the girl. "Never mind, sweeting. It's to keep you from coughing. I won't let anything hurt you." Alain slid with his back against the outer wall. Smoke thickened, choking him. Fire broke through the thick planks of the floor near the center of the chamber, and the planks behind them sagged into the fire. Too late to go back. Rufus jammed the cat at Alain, who held both child and cat while Rufus threw all his weight into a mighty kick against the stone column. Again, again, he kicked. The post wobbled. Rufus kicked again. Once more, Rufus hurled one stocky leg and all his weight against the column. It collapsed and tumbled outward to the ground. Two more kicks sent the shutters flying to the rock below. The king looked down. "Sweet Jesus. You said it was but a little drop." "Not so far as the others. Not even the height of the balcony." It was probably not the drop that worried Rufus, but whether he could get through the narrow window, even with the post kicked out. But they had no other choice. The flames surrounded them. "You first, Sire." "I will go last. If I did not make it through, none would. You jump down, then catch the babe and the cat." "I cannot leave you, Sire." "Curse it, de Crency. You'll do as I say. If you can by God give that bride of yours your faith, you can give it to me. Now go!" Hardly a time to argue. Alain leapt into the window and threw himself through it to the rocky slope below, his feet skidding beneath him. He landed on his seat, and scrambled to his feet, kicking away the debris to gain better footing. Almost before he had recovered his balance, Rufus threw down the screaming bundle that contained the cat. Alain laid it aside and let the cat wriggle itself free. Rufus already dangled the crying child by her arms.

"Don't cry, sweeting. Don't cry. Don't be afraid." Rufus begged the child, then let her drop. Alain caught her just before her feet reached the ground. "Run down the hill, sweeting," he said. "Find your mama." But from the corner of his eye, he saw Gerard came running up for the babe. He turned back to Rufus. "Curse it. I'll never eat another pudding as long as I live." Rufus was stuck. "A ladder!" Alain yelled. "Someone get a ladder!" Rufus disappeared back in through the hole. But there he was again, a leg through, his bulky body sideways, head ducked to work past the protruding middle of the double arch. One arm passed through beyond the window, and pushed against the frame as Rufus's big belly wedged again into the small cavity. Rufus sucked in a huge breath, then suddenly exhaled all the air he had, shoving at the same time. His body lurched past the frame. Hanging by only one leg, Rufus grabbed the remaining protrusion of the double arch, brought the free leg up while the other came away from the window. Rufus sprang away and down. Alain ran to his king, saying more grateful prayers than he thought knew. There had been no question of how Rufus would land. On his rump. He was merely fortunate that he managed to get enough of his massive, muscular legs beneath him to give a bit of spring to his landing. The heat of the rampaging fire forced them away. Running down the rocky slope, Rufus scooped up the red tom cat from where it crouched behind a large gray boulder. Alain dashed alongside, trying to take the cat, but the king ignored him until they reached the bailey. The upper bailey swarmed with villeins and knights who had gathered whatever they could save. Women with children, pots and cloths scurried about seeking loved ones. Soldiers leading horses and donkeys from the threatened stables bustled toward the relative safety of the lower bailey, away from the blazing hall. Beside Alain, Rufus turned back to watch the conflagration. The cat in his arms had given up the struggle, seeming to understand at last that Rufus would by God see his namesake cat safe. "We have been wrong, Alain," said Rufus, his eyes watering and nose running as they watched the flames leap through the roof where the lead had been melted away. "We are not going to Hell. Hell has come to us." *** "I did not know, lady," Dougal protested. "I thought only to drive back the Normans and keep my land." She understood that. No one had known. Fyren had bought her silence well, though it was she who had paid the coin. "And if the Norman king chooses to forgive you," she said, "mayhap you still will keep it. But if you will survive now, pledge your swords to Rufus. If not, I am prepared to die with you. I will see this land suffer no more, Dougal." "Not to the Norman, but to you, lady," said Dougal. He laid his sword on the stone floor. "Nay, keep it with you, lest we never see it again. We must find our way out, now." "You do not know?" "I know it. But it is a dangerous way. Bring the torches. Without the light, some will fall into the pit where Fyren's victims lie. The blaze rages behind us, blocking the passage to the hall, and the one that leads out through the bolt hole. Soon the air here will become unbreatheable. And even if the fire dies down, it will leave the rock too hot to walk upon. The only way out is past the pits."

The pits that still terrorized her dreams. Melisande squeezed between the pillars that nearly blocked their way and climbed down the opalized terraces that gleamed eerie pastel colors from the rush lights held above their heads. Her path lay to the right, then climbed again, but it was not steep. "Have a care, here. The rock is wet and slippery. There is another cavern below, and it is a long way down." The knights formed a single line behind her, sidling with their backsides against the rock wall until the hole they faced was passed. Again, she pointed upward. "This rock has fallen from the ceiling. We must climb over it and pass through that narrow space above. Have a care beyond, for it drops down quickly. You must find the places for your feet, and move to your left until you reach a place where you can stand. There is very little room, but I think it will hold all of us before we must move on again." The knights followed, their only sounds coming from their careful breathing, the shuffling of their boots, and the clinking of mail against the rock. Each took his turn, held the torch for the next, and reached the opposite face of the enormous boulder safely. Only the last had trouble finding his footholds, and was saved by the careful directions of the man who had preceded him. Melisande counted the knights, and saw that all were still with her. This upcoming section she feared, for it doubled back close to the fire. "I smell the smoke again," said Dougal. "Aye. This tunnel takes us back close to where we were, before turning again." "'Tis the smell of burning flesh," said a knight. "Take care that it is not yours as well." Not until this moment did she allow herself to think of the horrible way Fyren had died. The worst possible for him, who had feared fire since his childhood. She had not known. She had only bluffed. Never had she expected something so immense as the flames that had burst forth and engulfed Fyren. Though it was Fyren who had discovered the secret to Greek Fire, to his own destruction, guilt would haunt her forever, despite Father Hardouin's absolution. And what if others died for her grand experiment? An innocent villein, caught where he could not escape? A child asleep who no one noticed until it was too late? What if all above were trapped in the hall while the molten lead rained down on them and flames from the burning rock rose up from below? It was all her doing. All of it. But nay. Just as she had called for trust from her husband and the king, so she must also give her trust to them, and to God. They would save the people of her hall. A scream echoed behind her. "Catch him! Help him!" shouted Dougal. Two knights scrambled to save the man who slid on crumbling rock. His torch tumbled downward, down, sizzled out in the water below. The knight clung to jagged rock, his legs swinging for any purchase. Another man lunged and grasped the knight's wrist as his meager toehold slipped and crumbled into descending gravel. The second knight's weight shifted against him toward the chasm. Another leapt forward as the second man fell to his knees, held him back, and then another grabbed the arm that flailed helplessly. Together, the three men pulled upward until their companion rose to safety. Melisande had not realized she held her breath until she heard hers mesh with Dougal's in a great sigh as it was released.

"We are fortunate," she said. "Do not forget where you are. We have only one torch now to light our way. Test every step before you make it." The four men still breathed hard, and all took their turns embracing the one who had slipped. She had not thought. Just because she knew few of them did not mean they were not dear to each other. "Come." Melisande led them upward, around and through a curve, back within the layer of putrid smoke that hovered near the top of the cavern. It was growing. And they must climb still farther. The lone torch in the middle of the line gave too little light to all of them, yet they now must sidle past the deepest pit. None would make it without the light, for the narrow ledge was not continuous. She stopped, staring at the cavern wall where they must pass. "What is it, lady?" asked Dougal. "You cannot see it from here. Ahead of us, the cavern is very deep. We cannot climb down into it and back up, so we must find our way around. There is a ledge, but it does not go all the way. You will cross it with your backs to the wall. Then you must turn to your right, reach out and up with your left hand, where you will find a good hand hold. Pull yourself up, and at the same time, find the ledge for your left foot, up about as high as your shin. I will hold the torch so that each man can see as he goes. If you do as I say, it is not so hard. I will go last." "But lady, who will hold the torch for you?" "None. I will lay it down. After that, we will have no light." "Then how will we find our way out?" "When you find the second ledge, it will lead you to a level tunnel that will take you out. Wait there for me. I know the way beyond." "But if we lose you?" "I said you would live, Dougal. You will not lose me." "This place is from Hell," said a knight behind Dougal. "Better to be cut to ribbons on a battlefield than die in here." A low chorus rumbled through the men. "Do not talk yourselves into fear you do not need. Only do as I have said." Dougal led as Melisande stood at the pit's rim with the torch, holding it far from her body so that she could light his way yet clearly see his progress. "To your left, Dougal. Up, just a bit more." "Aye, I found it." Only the man beside her could see Dougal's path, enough to determine his own way. Dougal sidled along the second ledge by the cavern rim. "Now, feel ahead of you. The tunnel should be about a little higher than your chin." "Aye. It is here. It is not so hard." "Beyond that, you have only darkness, Dougal. Wait for us, and make room. But make no move before you have tested it." "Aye." The next knight edged along the shelf, following her directions, while another watched each move. Soon he climbed over the ledge, and disappeared just after the next man began. Melisande watched and directed each man along the rim. The torch burned low. It had been low enough when they had begun. Still more men waited to pass. She dared not hurry them, and instead encouraged each to take his time, be sure of each move before making it. But at this rate, not enough light would be left for the last ones. And none for her.

She turned to the remaining men behind her. "We must extend the life of the torch. Take off your cloaks and tear them into strips. Tie loose knots along them so they will burn longer." The knights eagerly complied. As the torch grew dim, she set the strips afire, a few at a time, and carefully tended the little blaze as she shepherded the last men along the ledge. All the Saxons had climbed onto the ledge into blackness. Melisande arranged the few remaining strips so that each would set the next on fire, and the greatest number of them would burn last, when she was farthest away. They would not last long enough. But she could waste no time, now. Nothing in this world terrified her like this pit. Whenever she had balked against Fyren's will, he had forced her down into its bowels by rope, where she had sat for endless hours, seeing nothing, feeling nothing but the cold rock and its moisture that she had licked off with her parched tongue. Never moving for fear of falling, never reaching out for fear of touching the corpse of one of the murdered girls. In the end, she had always given in to her terror and given Fyren what he had wanted. And Fyren was dead. At last, truly dead. She should have known it was Fyren's destiny to die by fire. Or would he rise again? Did he bleed and burn, only to be born again? The son of Satan, like the Son of God? Would he come forth from this hellish depth to grab her as she passed? The light was dying. She wasted time to court her fears. But haste was an even worse enemy than enervation. With each step deliberate, tested, she edged along the rim, her back carefully touching the wall without pressing against it. Then the end. The flame died.

CHAPTER 26 Blackness engulfed her. The old terror swept through her the way a raging storm tore branches from trees and ripped roofs bare of their thatch. Below her, the pit. The great murky depth of penetrating cold and mind-numbing emptiness. Where she would fall and be left in aching, echoing, lonely silence, for all eternity. Where she could not tell up from down, night from day, life from death, or know if there was any sanity left in her at all. If Fyren's destiny had been to die by fire, then surely hers was to tumble into the eternal hell of this pit. Nay. You know the way. I cannot. You can. Follow your own directions. I cannot see. It is so dark and cold. Don't leave me. I am always with you. Reach out, Melisande. Along the rock face, Melisande's hand ran like a caress, trembling, then touching, finding what it sought. Reach out, Melisande. Using her hand for support, Melisande found the second ledge with her foot, and pulled herself up. "Lady?" It was Dougal's voice, querulous, shaking. "Do not bother me, Dougal. I am busy."

But his voice gave her direction in the unforgiving darkness. Up and to her left lay Dougal and safety. Again she moved, tested the rock ledge, found its edge, felt and imagined where the right foot would go after the left one. Took the next step. Then the next. The rock crumbled, her foot slipped. She cried out as her balance quavered. A strong hand latched tightly on her wrist. "I have you," said Dougal. She leaned against the vertical rock, her breath trapped and trembling inside her chest. The tunnel. And safety. "Come, lady, do not fall now. We need you. How would we fare without you?" As Dougal and another lifted her up by her arms, her strength fell away from her like water from a bath. They found her a sure, solid place to sit as she slowly collected herself to prepare for the last leg of their journey. "I cannot see how you did that, lady. It was hard enough with the light." You knew the way. "I knew the way," she said. "Dougal!" called a voice from the black corridor. "I can see light. Night has fallen, and the moon already shines." "Can you help us now, lady?" "Aye. He is right. The entrance is small, but it is very close. Only be careful not to stray into a side tunnel." Melisande crawled, feeling her way along the cavern wall, going toward the voice she had heard. "Speak out again, sir knight, so we may follow your voice." "I stand at the entrance. The moon rises above the fells, full and big, red as harvest. Can you hear me, lady?" "Aye, we hear you. Speak again, and give us our bearing." The knight's voice poured forth, resounding through the cavern. Melisande groped ahead, moved, then reached behind her to touch the man who followed, knowing he also reached behind himself after each move. The dim, yellow glow of moonlight touched her eyes as painfully as bright sun as she climbed past the last barrier and saw the outline of the man who had called to them. "You should not have gone without me," she said. "Nay, I am glad I did. Come, Lady Melisande, here is the moonlight as you have never seen it before." She saw it, the moon as it rose in the sky, slowly growing smaller, paler, brighter, spreading its silver mantle over the dark dales and fells. As the knights crawled out from the cavern, she counted them, and smiled as the last left the bowels of darkness. The real world, the world of sanity, lay before them. The demons of darkness burned in the cavern left behind. A new voice spoke to her now. One that did not feed on her fears. One that gave to her instead of taking. Mayhap she would dare to talk of it to Father Hardouin. Mayhap not. She was not yet so sure of the Norman priest. "Do you know where we are, lady?" asked Dougal. "Aye. It is not so far as you might think." Melisande picked her way down the hillside where a tiny beck coursed like a silver ribbon, slipping beneath black silhouettes of trees and sparkling over rounded boulders and beds of gravel. The vale that was scooped out between the fells flattened, and they walked easily across moonlit pastures.

"Yonder, you see Arkle's beck," she said. "And beyond, his cow house. We are only on the far side of the hill." Then they saw it. "Holy Mother of God!" "The castle burns!" Silhouetted against the dark night sky, the castle looked like a jumble of blackened logs in a hearth, with flaming tongues licking about it. It looked like the fires the demons brought to her dreams. She had thought nothing in this world could bring her more terror than the black pits below. There was something. This was it. She wanted to run, but her legs seemed wooden, like planted trees. Was this Fyren's last evil act, to take with him all those she loved, all who occupied the castle above him? Fear accomplished what she could not, and of their own accord, her feet moved, then quickened their pace until she found herself running across the dale, leaping tiny becks, skirting only what she must in her straight dash toward home. Please God, oh, please! Let him live! Let them all live! *** They had accounted for everyone. "By some great miracle, none have perished in the flames, and the fire has not spread from the hall," said Chrétien. Thomas nodded as he watched the glowing blaze. "Its distance from other buildings helps. And the lack of wind." All the horses had been taken to the lower bailey as a precaution, and the cooks had removed everything of value from the kitchens. But not even the new tower had caught fire, despite its extensive wooden scaffolding. All accounted for. Save Melisande. He trembled inside. "She said to trust her, Alain." Rufus stood beside him, dwarfed in Alain's long shadow from the still-burning building. "She knows the caverns, Alain," said Chrétien, but the man chewed at his lower lip. "Aye, I trust her. I know she can do it. But I wish she would hurry. I wish we knew where to look." "Then let us ride out," said Rufus. "If she comes out, surely it will not be far from here. Around the hill, mayhap." He nodded. "She said once that the bolt hole came out near the river." "Then let us divide up. Some to go toward the river. Others around the hill." Alain nodded. The horses, still carrying sundry gear haphazardly thrown over their backs, were saddled by anxious stable boys and squires, then mounted by worried men. Gerard, more solemn than most, handed back his fiercely clinging babe to his wife, and mounted. Every man who had a horse rode out, small groups in every direction. Alain and Rufus rode round the hill on which the burning castle rested. The fire illuminated the landscape, gave sure footing to the horses, but it was not enough light to spot a cave in the darkness that had remained concealed in daylight. He recalled some of the small holes he had seen on the backside of the fell. A rocky overhang, a downward shaft, none that seemed big enough to lead into that monstrosity of caverns that lay hidden beneath the earth. But mayhap that was its secret, that none of them seemed what they were.

And the people of these parts feared the hobs too much to enter them. He didn't even know what a hob was. Nobody had seen fit to inform him. But now he joined them in their fears. Fyren's holes into Hell were worse than any hob might have been. "Look, Alain!" He strained his eyes to see where Rufus pointed. "See how metal gleams in the moonlight." "It is but a flowing beck." "I tell you, it is not. Listen. 'Tis the sound of metal, too." "Aye." It was. Like the jingling sound made by trotting horses carrying armored knights. Men running, toward them. He spurred his horse, Rufus beside him, toward the oncoming horde. It had to be them. He slowed as they drew close, straining his eyes to look for Melisande in their midst. There. She ran at the head, nearly staggering. Alain leapt down from his white charger and abandoned the animal as he ran toward his beloved, and caught her up in his arms. Gasping for breath, she threw her arms around him. Her knees collapsed. Still holding her, he eased them both down to sit on the moonlit grass, caught her mouth with his, hurried on to kiss every part of her face, throat, to touch every part of her that could be touched. She still struggled for breath, while tears streamed down her cheeks. She clung to him so tightly he thought his ribs might break. "Are you all right, love?" "Aye," she squeezed out between gulps of air. "And you?" "All are well, love. Only the hall burns. Not even a horse was lost." "Not even your damned cat," said Rufus, dismounted, and standing beside them. Startled, as if she had not noticed anyone else but Alain, she looked up at the king. "My cat?" "Your damned cat," Rufus corrected. Alain laughed. "Oh. It is a joke." "Nay, love. The joke is that you didn't know he teases you. The king saved your cat from the fire. And it cost him a pretty piece of his hide, I vow." "Mighty claws, that animal has," said Rufus. "Oh, I am sorry." Rufus's eyes rolled back before he looked at Alain and shook his head. "Teach the lady to laugh at my jokes before I return, de Crency." Close by the lady, Dougal stood with his winded knights, all blowing like coursers finishing a long race. Only then did Alain recall the sound of their swords clattering against stones as they had fallen to the earth. Dougal's knights knelt like their lady, still gasping, before Rufus. Their eyes searched him, waiting their fate. If Rufus had any sense, he would execute them all. Nay, if Rufus had the sense Alain was certain he had, he would recognize men who had found their way back from Hell, and knew a good leader when they saw him. Rufus stood before the motley assembly of kneeling knights, hands upon his hips, assessing them with narrowed eyes. He paced before them, studying one, then another. "You are the lady's knights, then," the king surmised. "Aye," said Dougal. "We are pledged to her, and she is yours, Sire."

"Then you live. For now. And if ever any of you rise against me again, I'll have your ears on my trencher for supper, and the rest of your body parts scattered across all England. Is it understood?" "Aye, Sire," came the chorus. "Then, let us return. I offer my horse to my lady knight." A chuckle rippled through the exhausted knights. "It is a joke, Sire?" she asked. Rufus sighed wistfully. "Nay, lady, not a joke, or at least, not a funny one. Just a very contrary notion that has no place in this world." "Let the lady ride with me, Sire," said Alain. "For the moment, I have no wish to let go of her." Rufus himself boosted the lady into the tall saddle of Alain's white horse, and Alain swung up behind. He wrapped one arm around her, and took the reins in the other hand. She leaned back, nestling against his chest. The sound of a hunter's horn echoed around them, to call the other searchers home, and its like rang back in echoes from all parts of the dale.

EPILOGUE The Red King stood in the bailey, one fist resting on his hip, near his packed-up train and saddled knights. Great lances raked the sky, and shiny mail gleamed in the morning brightness. Archers and foot soldiers stood ready to march. Before him knelt Lynet, the lovely wife of Gerard. The woman kissed his hand. Gerard also knelt before the king. "I owe you my utmost gratitude, Sire, and my loyalty shall ever be yours." Rufus was sure it would be. The saving of a little child was no small thing. Gerard's fealty to Fyren had been a mistake, but his defense of Lady Melisande was his saving grace. Melisande stepped forward, knelt and kissed his hand. Rufus smiled, unable to recall when another woman had gazed upon him so adoringly. But then, he usually did not deserve such admiration. "For all you have done for me, Sire, my heart is forever yours. You have given me my life and my love." "And your damned cat," said Rufus. Catching her off guard, he took her by the arms and kissed her cheek. "And one for your lady mother," he said, kissing her again before releasing her. He clapped Alain on the back, confident he left a good man in charge. Now a different battle called him. A new burst of energy filled him as he sprang onto the back of his black war horse. He pointed his army northward toward the Eden Valley and Carlisle. An intriguing woman, that one. He would always secretly think of her as his lady knight, for she had fought as bravely and cleverly as any knight he had ever known. He had not realized until coming here just how much the lady's mother had meant to him, when as a gawky eleven-year-old boy he had blurted out his love for a woman nine years his senior. But Lady Edyt had been kind, even gentle in her rejection, and he had never forgotten her. None had ever equaled her in his mind, though her daughter did come close.

He would never marry. For women did not love Rufus. For the most part, they did not even like him. They saw him for what he was, fat, red-faced, and ill-tempered, just as the Lady Melisande had done on first meeting him, when she screwed up her face in horror at the suggestion of being his wife. He had made a joke of it, but he knew its real meaning. This girl, though, truly did like him, for more reason than the service he had done her. That was not to question her love for her husband. Like her mother, she was kind. He resolved not to envy de Crency his good fortune. He had fulfilled his promise, and seen the daughter rescued. Done his deed of mercy. He doubted he'd do another one. Too complicated, messy. More for him the clean, raw energy, the simple ferocity of the battlefield. But he doubted he'd ever forget this lady. Or her damned cat. THE END

A Word or Two... This is a work of historical romance fiction, and as such, there might be bits of history that have been presented more in accordance with the conventions of romance than history itself. Poetic license is ever useful in the creations of romance. I do know when fireplaces came into use, or when castles were made of wood instead of stone, when the waltz was not danced, or when dance cards and envelopes were not used. But sometimes, when one wishes to be writing romance, things like the convention of keeping one's servants in the same room when one makes love to one's wife don't appeal to the modern sense of romance, and perhaps it’s best to ignoe them. From time to time, then, I will be talking on my blog about the real history and the real people. And if you want to know, things, like the REAL reason Rufus never married, or anything within my area of study, just ask. I love that kind of stuff. See me on my website: http://dellejacobs.com or on my blog, IN SEARCH OF HEROES: http://dellejacobs.blogspot.com OTHER BOOKS by DELLE JACOBS See Website for Availability: http://dellejacobs.com LADY WICKED SINS OF THE HEART APHRODITE’S BREW HIS MAJESTY, THE PRINCE OF TOADS LADY VALIANT THE MUDLARK LOKI’S DAUGHTERS

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